In a city that can seem lonely for an old man, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has become Maurice Wihton's place. Five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the retired federal employe can be found in its second-floor reading room, always in a coat and tie, as he tackles The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Manchester Guardian, The Economist, Commentary, Time and Newsweek.
"I leave home at half past seven," he said one rainy morning last week, looking up from Newsweek. "I go to Sholl's for breakfast. I walk very slowly. I waste time at a store -- like Peoples. Maybe I pick up a special. I'm here at 8:45."
The 75-year-old Wihton, who lives by himself in a downtown high-rise apartment, reads the news of the world with a sense of mission, and of hope. "I want to keep abreast of current events," he said. "Then I can carry on conversations with more people." It is difficult, he said, finding anyone in the city who wants to talk to an old man.
"Younger people don't want to talk to you," he said. "They think you're a has-been. The only ones who talk to you are the clerks in the stores, and they have to."
Sometimes he writes down facts he finds in the newspapers and magazines that he thinks might interest people. From his wallet he pulled a slip of paper with his latest fact: "George Henry Lewes, philosopher, wrote 'Life of Goethe', died 1879, lived with George Eliot. He was Jewish."
At a table across the room from Maurice Wihton, a Defense Department engineer named Richard Krueger continued his research on the history of Austria for a book he has been writing on and off for 30 years. Louis Samblin, 42, who likes to read about sports and the law ("I want to get into law someday"), opened "The World Series -- A Complete Pictorial History." By the window, a computer programmer and a construction worker, who had met at the library, were deep in a game of chess.
The Martin Luther King Library, which last week celebrated its tenth anniversary, draws all kinds, from Wihton, with his passion for current events, to high school students discovering Shakespeare.
In an age of television and video games when, we are told, books are becoming obsolete, it is comforting to know that the people of the city still gather at the library, even if they do not always come to read.
The imposing glass, concrete and steel library that was designed by the late Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has become a sort of community center, offering everything from computers and classes in calisthenics to poetry readings and performances of plays.
More than 3,000 local groups gather in the library's three meeting rooms at 901 G St. NW each year: everyone from The Toastmasters to the Senior Citizens Civic Association.
You can dial a story on 638-5717 at any time and listen to a three-minute, taped children's story. Last week's story was, "The Otters and The Wolf," from the Takata Tales. Six times a year the story is in Spanish, and the children love it. Last year, more than 10,000 calls a week were logged when the story was in Spanish.
Overseeing all of this -- and a staff of 230 -- with unbridled enthusiasm is Kathleen Wood, chief librarian, a former English major at Howard University who is fond of science fiction, mysteries and Westerns.
"Librarians are never satisfied," she said. "You just want more and more people to come here."
The library, whose shelves hold more than 350,000 books, is a monument to man's love of knowledge and his eternal curiosity, which ranges from the profound to the trivial. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the telephone reference division. There, surrounded by every kind of reference book from "The Oxford Companion to English Literature" and the "Physicians Desk Reference" to "Feminist Quotations" and "Weird America," a former high school teacher named Bill Stephenson and a gospel singer named Dot Gray cheerfully spend their days on the phone, answering with amazing equanimity such questions from the public as:
Do roaches have teeth? Answer: Yes.
Name the seven deadly sins. Answer: Pride, avarice, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth, lust.
What should you say in a receiving line at a wedding? Answer, according to Stephenson: "The wedding was great, the bride was beautiful."
Every question, even the simplest, is heard politely and checked. "Someone once asked how to spell cat," Stephenson recalled. "I couldn't just say C-A-T. I had to say 'Please hold, I'll check, and look it up.' "
The library's anniversary festivities last week included birthday cake, gospel singing, poetry reading, a ribbon-cutting at the newly acquired Washington Star collection, and an evening gathering of local authors, who numbered 86.
Mingling easily with the authors of such books as "The Inner World of the Middleaged Man" and "The Politics Of Lying" was 17-year-old Courtney Banks, who has written no books but loves the library.
"I come here every day," he said, fiddling with the Rubik's Cube that he is rarely without. "I come at 12 and stay until it closes. I look around, read books. You can learn things. You ever been up on the third floor? That's where the computers are."
Banks, who recently moved here from New York, said he is waiting for the proper transfer papers so he can start school in the District. Meanwhile, he spends his days in Room 316 -- called The Other Place -- which has computers, videotapes and records, bean-bag chairs, cheerful librarians and a clientele aged 12 to 19. Banks made a new friend there in Michael Mason, a 16-year-old junior at Banneker Senior High.
Mason's life took an unexpected turn over the summer, one that led him to read all the books of Herman Hesse and spend more time than ever at the library. "Our TV broke down in June," he explained.
The resident bookworm of The Other Place is 14-year-old Albert Jones, a 9th grader at Banneker, who lists Richard Wright's "Native Son" and Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" among his favorite books.
"If you can't travel, you can read about the places," he said. Egypt, one of the places he has read about, enchants him. "If I couldn't live in America, I'd live in Egypt. I like their culture. I liked Anwar Sadat. He was an honest person."
One floor down from The Other Place, in the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a volunteer had just left after spending eight hours taping a Supreme Court case for a retired judge who is blind. "It's an inspiration to work here," said Grace Lyons, head of the divison, which provides books and magazines on record, tape and in Braille -- free, as are all of the library's services -- for more than 2,000 readers.
Down the hall, in Literature, librarian Octave Stevenson, who loves the works of James Joyce, lamented what he considers to be the falling caliber of library users, declaring: "We used to get more scholarly people."
He might be comforted to know that this fall the young patrons of The Other Place have borrowed all the copies of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." But he would doubtless be disturbed to learn that downstairs, in Popular Literature, the preferred titles include "Richard Simmons' Never-Say-Diet Cookbook" and "Miss Piggy's Guide to Life."
And the Sociology division is pushing a list of 18 reference books on divorce, with such titles as "What Every Man Should Know About Divorce," "No-Fault Divorce," and "How To Get A Divorce."
It was close to 5 o'clock. Upstairs, in The Other Place, 15-year-old William Simmons, a sophomore at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, picked up his trumpet case and got ready to go home.
Tomorrow would be another day at the library. Maurice Wihton would be back to read all of the latest news. William Simmons would be back, too. Tomorrow, he said, he planned to take out a book. What book? "Maybe Hamlet."