12 Sep Library Ladder

Last week, Jill and I drove to New Jersey with our friend Scott to buy an old library ladder. The kind with wheels on the bottom and an attachment on the top so you can set it to a rail and roll it from book to book when you’re way up high. Finding an old library ladder is very difficult. Not many were made, apparently. It isn’t exactly an every day item. As a result, old or new, they’re expensive. Jill and I debated whether or not to buy one. I contemplated building a ladder, but the hardware for building one is nearly as expensive as the ladder itself. So why not go find an old ladder? Which we did.

The word “ladder” originates in the Greek word of “lean.”

“Ladder company” once referred to a company of firefighters, which was distinguished by its possession of a ladder. Not everybody owned a ladder, especially a tall one. Oh, yeah, there was a hook too. “Hook and Ladder Company” is the full designation for a company of firefighters. The hook (actually a pike pole) was for tearing into buildings and yanking burning things out. One day the fire alarm went off in our house and within ten minutes the firefighters were at our door—big, sweaty men wearing black slickers. They carried axes. They looked really eager to get inside and tear stuff up. But they couldn’t get inside because the iron gate over our front door kept they out. From my side of the gate I assured them that there was no fire and thanked them profusely for their prompt reply. They looked disappointed and not thoroughly convinced that I was telling the truth.

Baltimore charges its residents $25 a year to register an alarm system and $50 per false fire alarm.

We are happy with our old library ladder. It’s made of oak and has cool old-timey wheel covers. I had to cut the ladder down to make it fit. We ordered a brass rail for it and I modified the ladder’s rollers to make it work. Jill and I take turns climbing on the ladder and riding it.

When we first bought our old house ten years ago, we hired a budget roofing company to repair our roof, which is forty feet high. You don’t want to use a ladder for that kind of height; you need a lift. To appreciate the altitude of a forty-foot ladder, you’d have to imagine standing on a highway overpass and looking down. Now multiply that times two.

In addition to our huge flat roof, we also have a tower with a shingled roof. Shingling a pitched roof from the top of a forty foot ladder is like trying to make a club sandwich while walking a tight rope. At forty feet, the wind can be three times the intensity of street level. And a sudden move can make the ladder heave and buck, even with two strong men anchoring the bottom. The first morning of roof work, I stepped into the front yard to check out the job. Above me, I heard a “whoop!” then I saw a cardboard six-pack beer container whirly-gig from our roof. The roofers were have a Bud light breakfast to steel their nerves for their work the ladder.

For every four feet of ladder height, the bottom of the ladder should be one foot away from the wall or object it is leaning against. But you can’t do that for a forty-foot roof, so the ladder is really steep. We got so nervous about the roofers risking their lives on the ladder, we made them rent a “cherry-picker,” one of those trucks with a mechanical arm that lifts a bucket up high, which we paid for.

Ladder accidents send more than 200,000 people to the hospital every year. I’ve never fallen from a ladder, though I’ve spent a lot of time on them, especially when working on our three-story rear porch. My tallest ladder takes me about twenty feet. When I work at that height, I attach myself to a porch post with a mountain-climbing harness. If I fall, I might do myself some harm—I picture myself dangling upside-down, tethered in my harness and swinging in wide pendulous swings. But I wouldn’t die.

“Rolling ladder” is an investment strategy that recommends investing your money in equal amounts that come to maturity on a staggered basis. The idea is that every year some portion of your money has earned its keep and is back in your hands.

By design, rolling library ladders are elemental in construction and thoroughly practical, but because they are such specialized equipment and associated with the increasingly rarefied activity of fetching books, they may seem an extravagant indulgence. Still, most people I’ve talked to would take one if they had a place to put it.