Oodles of Maps, and other things

1 Jan

Did you know most towns have a Town Records Center? I didn’t. It’s been added to the list of things I learn on the job. This morning I went to the Cheektowaga Town Records Center to do a story on it (whatever “it” was. I didn’t know yet) The angle? Once it was a library. The town lost funding for it, and then it became a records center. The rest was up to me.

I showed up at the wrong time, which was predictable enough. Supposedly the agreed upon time was 9:30, not 9:00. My contact stared at me through lids thick with make-up while she shuffled around papers on her desk and told me to wait outside her office while she collected herself.

She didn’t look, to me, like a town records manager. But then again, I’d never met a town records manager before nor known they existed. But still. She wore a leopard print shirt, had black, dangly earrings, highlighted brown hair, high heels, and a pregnant belly (I didn’t assume, she told me). You’d expect to see her in an environment not quite so…dusty?

First she showed me the rooms kept locked all the time, the rooms with the police and court records. She kept leading me further into the basement as she unlocked more doors. Only the sound of turning keys and high heels filled the stale air. Mint green boxes labeled “fill in the blank Records” were stacked on rows that went up the ceiling and across the room.

It seemed so secretive, down there in the basement. I wondered, in part, if what I was doing was legal. Would they have to put me in the witness protection program now that I had seen “the boxes?” Leopard print laughed and said she didn’t think readers would need to know the layout, the floor plans, of the building. I said no, they didn’t. She laughed nervously, in relief, as if she really didn’t know if I was planning on asking to see them. We went back upstairs to where sunlight filtered through windows.

She showed me all manner of things—a box of fossils, rocks and whatnot; birth, death and wedding records from the 1800s; oodles of maps, maps of town halls and businesses and parks and houses and landscapes, all coiled with bands around them and placed in boxes and on shelves. They were great, big maps, small obscure ones, tattered yellow ones—the kind that lead to a barrelful of buried treasure somewhere.

Suddenly it all seemed extraordinarily exciting, to be the keeper of these local records. Images of National Treasure conjured in my mind when she mentioned temperature controlled rooms and records kept in special safes. It seemed so glamorous. I expected Nicholas Cage to pop up from in-between the shelves wielding a compass from the 1600s or something. Maybe the record manager’s heels were exactly right for a job like this.

I almost didn’t find it. The library turned records center didn’t have an address on its front or anywhere else as far as I could tell. MapQuest told me to turn right, which was a definitive dead end, and when I turned left, I didn’t see anything but the old high school. Thoroughly confused at this point, I went into the high school, figuring anyone inhabiting such a place would be more knowledgeable about where the records center might be than say, someone manning the local gas station. Five minutes to nine mind you, and I walked in. It was like a ghost town, no one there. So I did the only thing I could do—follow the jangling of keys, which could mean only one thing, a janitor, who is, as everyone knows, the most knowledgeable person in any building.

I followed the jangling to a little room off a hallway that looked like something from The Shining. In it sat two janitors. The one sitting in the chair looked at me like I had a third eyeball as I posed my breathless question:

“Do you know where the town records center is?”

The janitor, who had jet black hair and a full beard (and who looked like a pirate who somehow settled down with a 9-5 job in Western New York) told me the records center was next door. I ignored what I thought was chuckling from them as I sheepishly disappeared from the doorway as fast as my fake Uggs could take me, back through the ghost halls and once again into the chill morning air. Well how was I supposed to know?

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