I have been back in Billings for barely a day and half, and already the crime I committed in Latvia has caught up with me. The infamy took place in the Latvian National Library (see photo above), which I visited on Saturday, the day after my official duties as a representative of the U.S. State Department (details here) came to an end.
I had wanted to visit the library anyway, having seen the immense modern structure looming over the landscape on the other side of the river from the old part of Riga. My expectations were heightened when I read, on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Riga, that the library has something called the John F. Kennedy Reading Room, with a small collection of English-language books available for checkout, as well as some “titles donated by US diplomats for free.”
Upon arriving at the library, I discovered that one doesn’t just go waltzing into the JFK Reading Room of the Latvian National Library. No, I had to fill out a form with all my vital statistics, indicate how advanced (or not) my formal education was, and to state what institution I was with (I put down “Last Best News”). Filling out this form made me eligible for the next stage of the process, which was answering still more questions on a computer kiosk and having my mugshot taken. I then went back to the front desk for another short interrogation, after which I was issued an official photo ID.
I took the elevator up to the sixth floor (I think) and entered the JFK Reading Room, which I had to myself. I looked through some of the titles on the circulation shelves before finding the collection of free books … only to discover that American diplomats, like so many millions of their countrymen, are big fans of Clive Cussler. Besides the Cussler books, there was a smattering of other titles that could have made up the book section of a typical Billings garage sale.
On a table next to those books, though, was a more interesting collection of periodicals. I selected a relatively recent copy of the New York Review of Books and headed back to the elevator. But then I thought it might be interesting to go to the top floor—the library has something like 20 stories—to see whether any of the city was visible through the fog, which still hadn’t lifted. Well, there was some kind of meeting underway on the top floor, so I quietly went to the other side of the floor, ascertained that the fog was too thick for any kind of view, and hopped in another elevator. This one, however, had restricted access, and wouldn’t let me go to the ground floor, so I took it to the basement, got out and went into another elevator.
This one wouldn’t go to the ground floor either, so I took it to the next available stop, exited and found myself in a hallway, with a security guard at a desk on my right. Heading for a door, I passed through some kind security detector and set off an alarm, so I went back to the desk, where the guard asked me a few questions in broken English, made two or three phone calls and then carefully wrote down on a sheet of paper an inventory of my belongings, including the New York Review of Books. He indicated that I could now go through the security check “into the library,” which made me wonder where I had been in the meantime. Anyway, though it seemed silly to leave already, having spent more time obtaining credentials than actually touring the library, I had things to do.
One of them was walking to Bolderaja, an English-language bookstore/coffee shop I’d seen on the web. It was more than an hour’s walk away, but I wasn’t getting any other kind of exercise, so off I went—only to find out when I got there that the joint opened at 5 p.m., still a couple of hours away. I should also point out that this alleged business was housed in a down-at-the-heels stucco building with four crooked windows facing the street, a nondescript wooden door and no markings of any kind, nothing to indicate that it wasn’t simply abandoned. Also, once I had apparently reached the right spot, I walked up and down the block three or four times looking for it, with the lady on Google Maps continually assuring me that “You have arrived at your destination.” I finally peeped in the window of the ramshackle building past the filthy blinds and saw that there were, indeed, shelves of books inside.
I returned later, after having marched back to my Airbnb for some rest and a quick meal. Bolderaja still looked deserted, but I opened the door to find it warm and inviting after another walk through the chilly streets of Riga. It was much smaller than I expected, with a tiny back room, a somewhat larger main room and then a kind of sitting room off to the side. There weren’t many books, maybe a few hundred at most, but I had my copy of the New York Review of Books, so I ordered a coffee and sat down to read in the sitting room.
I was next to an elderly gentleman with long, gray hair and a brown corduroy jacket, and before long, as a few more Bohemian-looking young people filtered into the room, he commenced lecturing, as far as I could tell. I would like to have understood him, but since I did not and wanted to read, I decamped to the main room, where I ordered a gin and tonic, because I was now in a civilized country where one could order alcohol in a coffee shop. There was no ice—the desire for which is felt, apparently, only by spoiled Americans—but the drink was good without it.
After another agreeable hour or so, I got up to leave, and on my way out I went over to the fellow behind the coffee/booze bar (who may have been the owner), and gave him my copy of the New York Review of Books. He seemed quite happy and said, “Thank you! I already have a London Review of Books, and now I have a New York Review of Books as well!” I was pleased with myself, having again, even on my own time, done my part to express the goodwill of the American people.
And there matters stood until this morning, when I received the following email:
Dear Mr Kemmick,
Last Saturday, November 10, You visited National Library of Latvia and borrowed a copy of The New York Review of Books. All the magazines in the John F. Kennedy Reading Room are intended for reading on the spot, but our security guard did not know it—sorry for misunderstanding.
You are welcome to return a copy of the magazine as soon as possible.
We would be grateful if you could deal with this matter at your earliest convenience.
Bibliographer of Humanities and Social Sciences Reading Room,
John F. Kennedy Reading Room
I was mortified, as you can imagine. Like the security guard, I was unaware of my theft, just as I now have no idea what will happen when I write back, as I plan to do tomorrow, to say that I am unable to return the publication in question. Does the United States have an extradition treaty with Latvia? Will this sink my chance of ever working for the State Department again? Will I inadvertently cause trouble for the guard, or the coffee shop?
Also, I am amazed to think of what a frightfully efficient bureaucracy Latvia must have in place. Just imagine the number of steps that that were taken to detect my crime and then to contact me here in America. I suspect this all has something to do with the long Soviet occupation of Latvia. Communism wasn’t very good at anything, but by God it was good at bureaucracy. Wish me luck in asserting my innocence and in explaining what happened to the magazine.