Biographies, romance, reference, travel – these signs label each section of the orderly library shelves. The books stand perfectly straight, their spines like the Queen’s military guard at Buckingham palace – erect, no leaning, tucked behind a regiments’ imaginary line. Some magazines lay in a domino cascade on a shelf. National Geographic and Reader’s Digest are upright soldiers like the books. The sign on the spot for returns, books you’ve browsed, and new donations sends a warning message from whoever is in charge here. Don’t reshelve, you might not do it right. Is the perfect library? Let’s take a closer look at Slab City’s library.
LIBRARY - The rectangular sign outside looks hand-painted. The black capital letters stand out against a white background weathered and with the paint peeling loose around the edges. Closer to the ground, a smaller sign recognizes a donor: “Fence donated by Kenny Stearns.” In fund-raising, Kenny is what development professionals call an in-kind donor; neighbors called him a drinker. He didn’t contribute big cash; Kenny gave what he could. His gifts, an assortment of empty wine bottles, protrude from the ground, upended with their necks planted in the desert dirt to fence the perimeter grounds of the Slab City Library.
Someone salvaged a discarded motor home door for the library entrance. The head of a faded Teddy Bear hangs out of the door’s screened window. Below his cute little brown face, the “No Dogs” rule warns visitors to leave their pets outside. Above the window, “Entrance” in black letters let’s you know the preferred way inside. I counted four entrances, one on each side of the library. There’s a swinging gate to the open air garden reading room. The rear gate is mounted between the bare, rusty sculpture of what once served as two box spring mattresses. The mattresses are now library walls. The fourth door, a side door, faces an abandoned bus where a faded Pink Panther stuffed animal sits perched on a lawn chair. A little black cocktail dress decorates the wall near this exit and an old fashioned single bed headboard arch-shaped with metal bars fills a gap in the fence.
Inside, you’d never know that black tires weigh down the corrugated metal roof. Red, blue, and yellow fish nets hang from the ceiling of one room in a colorful canopy. In the open air area, a tree shades the folding table, several chairs, and a couch that my Grandma would have called a davenport. The tingle-tingle sound comes from the wind chime movement as a bird bounces on the weak tree branches.
Occasionally, the sound of water breaks the library quiet. Visitors can activate this soothing white noise by simply pouring water from a basin into a cascading contraption. A sign list the how to instructions.
Is there high speed Internet? How about: “Internut?” This library makes a statement left for your own interpretation about connecting to the World Wide Web. Atop a wooden desk sets a small portable TV, an antique typewriter, and a mouse trap mounted on a clear clipboard. And, yes, a dead mouse lays trapped in the clamp. A thief stole the fake mouse. Patrons have yet to take the real one; although rumor claims that coyotes have occasionally snuck in and dined on the library mouse. Replacements are not hard to catch.
Carnegie had nothing to do with the Slab City Library. Peggy Sadlik did. I learned that she created the library in the desert and managed it well until breast cancer claimed her life. Her ashes lie in the protection of the wine bottle fence with a simple marker: “Peggy Sadlik 1949 – 2003.” She is not forgotten. Peggy’s legacy lives on in the Slab City Library. Folks who live in Slab City and watch over the library erected a large peace symbol in her memory. At its base in the far corner of the library, desert rocks set in a pile. “Leave a stone for peace” a sign encourages. Many visitors have added to the mound.
A library snob might be quick to judge this library by traditional standards. Yet, if we polled any of the authors whose books stand on this library’s shelves, I’d venture to guess they’d say, “Don’t judge the place by its cover. We’re proud to have our works here.”
February 4, 2009
To get to Slab City, you must first reach Niland, California on Highway 111.
Once in Niland, follow Main Street east.
Cross some railroad tracks then enter some open country for a few miles.
You’ll see an abandoned military guard station painted with a greeting: “Welcome to Slab City.”
Slab City is a “culturally enhanced desert boondock city.”