The David Iscoe Presidential Library

Nonfiction and fiction, respectively

When I first moved out on my own after college, I worked as an emergency medical technician making $11 an hour, plus overtime. The job was interesting. It took me all over the four main boroughs, and sometimes to Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Westchester. I met good people and did useful work. I liked the feeling of stepping out of the ambulance to a place I’d never been before, getting a feel of the landscape, walking into a building knowing I had a purpose there. I didn’t like that I was stressed and didn’t see a path to a good future. In between calls, I would try to eat enough food, or try to rest enough and not think anxious thoughts, but trying is not the same as doing.

One of the most reliable ways for me to stay happy was by reading Terry Pratchett books. They were funny and moved toward happy endings that seemed earned rather than stupid, and I felt safe and entertained and insulated from my life trajectory. When I finished one Terry Pratchett book, which would happen pretty quickly, I’d want to buy another to dive into right away, but I worked noon-to-ten and one-to-eleven so the bookstore would always be closed after my shift ended. Mornings wouldn’t work, because I never was able to get up early enough to do anything before work besides having a distant chance of eating, plus all the bookstores were in the opposite direction of the base. I’d get home to my computer and search for an “all night bookstore” and come up with nothing, and then I’d know I had to face another day with all my stress and no Terry Pratchett books. 

That’s when my dream of opening up an all night bookstore began. It fit in with another of my favorite pastimes, dreaming about having more money. I’d play Solitaire on my computer and make complicated formulas to convert the score into how much I’d take home each year in the future. If I hit a jackpot and came up with an arbitrarily high number, more than I knew how to spend, I’d dream about buying a storefront and starting a bookstore cafe that was open twenty-four hours and served good cheap bites to eat. It would have Terry Pratchett books, all of them, and a mix of other literary and political works, like Italo Calvino and James Baldwin stuff. It would be in Central Brooklyn, near a bunch of train and bus lines, and I’d work the night shift and just hang out there and be a little gruff but friendly if you got to know me. It seemed like a good way to have a life I liked without doing any of the things that the ambitious people I resented wanted me to do.

I never figured out a plan to get the money to start that store, which, again, is something I could only do if I had more of my own money than I knew what to do with. It was a vain and foolish idea, and never a real one beyond idle daydreaming. If it had been for a coherent and promising idea, I probably could have asked my family for the money, but not having to get approval or get bothered by anyone was one of my main goals in life, so asking was right out. Unfortunately, most of the others ways to get money also involve a lot of hassle, except the lottery, which I always fantasized about winning without ever buying any tickets. I thought it would be nice if everyone had a random chance to win the lottery but never had to waste money on it, and I still think that, but it’s pretty far down the list of priorities these days. 

I’m dreaming bigger now, anyway. Dr. Evil once said, “why make trillions when we can make… billions?” I say, “why make a bookstore when you can make… a library?” Libraries are better than bookstores. Generally, they have more books and a lot more workspaces. They’re also free to be in, which is great on its own and also means fewer people inside them are assholes. And inside the libraries are a bunch of librarians, who don’t just tell people to shush, though I’ve seen them do that. They help organize the information of the world, which is really important because there’s so much noise and so many people trying to get signal out of that noise have terrible priorities. 

Plus, you don’t have to be ultra-rich to make a library. All you have to do is be president, and they make a library for you for free or something. Barack Obama may actually be rich, because he sells a bunch of books and is well-connected, but he comes across as a normal guy, not a maniac like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, and he only had to fudge the truth a little and do things like murdering people with drone strikes through the existing infrastructure, not, like, actively work to exploit the people working for him. What I’m saying is I could see myself doing his thing more easily than doing their thing. 

Sadly, Obama’s kind of messing up his library, which will cost half a billion dollars. He’s not having any librarians on staff, for example, and his records won’t be on site. It’s basically not a library at all. This is very weird to me. Why do the hard part – the presidency – if you aren’t getting any libraries out of it?

This is where I feel like I have a chance to do a better job - not with the presidency, but with the ex-presidency part of it. As I’ve said before, there’s a lot of reasons I shouldn’t ever run for office in general, much less president, and I still agree with that in theory, but I still think being president would be a fun thing to have been. You could talk to a lot of people, or strike up a conversation in a bar by saying “hey, I used to be the president, that was an interesting job” or sell things like t-shirts that say “I hate being president. I love having been president – Dorothy Parker.”

Anyway, we all can still have idle dreams. Here’s mine.

The David Iscoe Presidential Library 

If you’re lucky enough to have a working car whose tires can withstand the cracked roads, or if the air quality’s good enough outside to wait for the bus, or if the trains happen to be in working order that day and you win the ticket lottery, or if you’re able-bodied and live in one of the few D.C. homes not owned by absentee investors, you may have a chance to visit The David Iscoe Presidential Library, though you might not know it by that name. The sign outside looks like it says “THE LIBRARY” – the middle three words are written so small they’re only readable from less than a foot away, and the sign is twenty feet above the ground. But it’s a presidential library nonetheless, and a damn good one at that.

The cast concrete building is understated but impressive. The library has floor after floor of public workrooms, with free WiFi, universal chargers, and built-in computers, as well as drafting tables and listening/viewing cubicles for all forms of media. The rooms are brightened by floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the surrounding public park, and the interior walls are lined with stately, multi-storied book stacks. Unusually for a public library, the bathrooms are plentiful, clean, and accessible – no room is more than fifty feet from the all-gender facilities, which are nestled unobtrusively throughout the structure. Drinks, but not food, are allowed at the work tables, a safe distance from the more sensitive materials, and hungry patrons are free to bring their own food to the spacious tables in the commons or to purchase meals from the many affordable vendors. Near the center of the building, lit by the atrium skylight, are scores of conference and presentation rooms, available to local and community groups free of charge.

But what really makes the library stand out is its staff, who hold some of the most coveted jobs in the field. The faculty comprises rising stars and venerated legends from across the discipline, working alongside internal hires and public applicants who take advantage of the free trainings in library sciences offered to staff and patrons. They work in tandem with enthusiastic academics who strive to make the library’s findings accessible to the public and engage local citizens, especially in political history and civics, with a focus on encouraging robust local participation. It’s common to hear judicial candidates and obscure party functionaries being tossed around like household names. But one name you’ll rarely hear is that of the library’s presidential founder. That’s something they do to be polite to him.

The files of the Iscoe presidency are, of course, available in his library, in the interest of transparency. Staff spent a lot of time curating, interpreting, and exhibiting them, and are glad to give tours if asked. The presidential section is called “The Darkroom,” though in reality it’s a well-lit complex in the library’s basement. The moniker refers to the room’s subject matter, the disastrous four years in American history that the president would prefer never to speak about again. 

To be fair, historians will tell you, the first three years weren’t so bad. There was a lot of incompetency, yes, and the “What If Room” explores the possibilities squashed when President Iscoe elbowed his way in front of dozens if not hundreds if not thousands if not millions of more qualified candidates, but there was at least not the active malevolence or calculated cynicism of the worst of the previous administrations.

But it all went off the rails near the end of the first term, when the president started to plan his library. Private conversations reveal that he thought that any ex-president would just “get a library” as a matter of right, and that it would be built however he wanted and fully funded with no budgetary limits. When, going into his final year, President Iscoe learned that wasn’t the case, he suffered an intense and public mental breakdown, culminating in the infamous “All I Wanted Was a Fucking Library” speech that he delivered in an incoherent mutter while chucking stones into the Potomac River.

It’s clear from the archival material that the president was suffering the whole time, but it’s also clear from the library’s many exhibits that one man’s existential anguish was nothing compared to the very real suffering of the countless people in the world who had to contend with his failure to address the many, many ongoing crises he ignored. They are memorialized in the “Catacombs of Consequence,” their stories told in the “Testimonials of Tragedy,” the President’s choices excoriated in the “Halls of Hubris,” all exhibits which won awards for their compelling historical narrative and condemnation for their overzealous use of alliteration in their titles, for which the President also bears full responsibility.

Eventually, the historians will tell you, House and the Senate came together to be the “adults in the room” and cheer up the moping president with an offer to fully fund his library, no questions asked, if he promised to come back to work, to which he responded by signing their bill and promptly retiring. At his departure, he gave a four hour speech where he admitted to being an asshole who never should have run for office but pointed out that the whole thing would never have happened if libraries were properly funded in the first place. 

While the Darkroom, considered by the American Historical Association to be “depressing but enlightening,” may be the most academically acclaimed part of the library, most patrons prefer to remain aboveground, including the President himself. On an average weekday, he can be found with a coffee and snacks in the break room behind the third floor Literature Library, typing something incoherent on a laptop and occasionally joking with friends and strangers. Sometimes, he’ll tell his favorite joke, stolen from Sam Beckett’s Endgame, stolen from something else (the budget of our magazine doesn’t allow for enough factchecking to get to the root of things; unlike the David Iscoe Presidential Library, we don’t have an unlimited source of funding, and are subject to the generally dismal economic conditions he helped create).

Here’s the Beckett original:

NAGG:

Let me tell it again.

(Raconteur's voice.)

An Englishman, needing a pair of striped trousers in a hurry for the New Year festivities, goes to his tailor who takes his measurements.

(Tailor's voice.)

"That's the lot, come back in four days, I'll have it ready." Good. Four days later.

(Tailor's voice.)

"So sorry, come back in a week, I've made a mess of the seat." Good, that's all right, a neat seat can be very ticklish. A week later.

(Tailor's voice.)

"Frightfully sorry, come back in ten days, I've made a hash of the crotch." Good, can't be helped, a snug crotch is always a teaser. Ten days later.

(Tailor's voice.)

"Dreadfully sorry, come back in a fortnight, I've made a balls of the fly." Good, at a pinch, a smart fly is a stiff proposition.

(Pause. Normal voice.)

I never told it worse.

(Pause. Gloomy.)

I tell this story worse and worse.

(Pause. Raconteur's voice.)

Well, to make it short, the bluebells are blowing and he ballockses the buttonholes.

(Customer's voice.)

"God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!"

(Tailor's voice, scandalized.)

"But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—

(disdainful gesture, disgustedly)

—at the world—

(Pause.)

and look—

(loving gesture, proudly)

—at my TROUSERS!"

(Pause. He looks at Nell who has remained impassive, her eyes unseeing. He breaks into a high forced laugh, cuts it short, pokes his head towards Nell, launches his laugh again.)

The President is fond of retelling the joke, then gesturing towards the Darkroom, saying “Look at my presidency,” his voice dripping with disgust. He’ll then perk up his head, gesture proudly at the spacious rooms around him, and say “…and look at my LIBRARY!” 

Sometimes it gets a laugh, sometimes it doesn’t. The day I interviewed him, there were a few short chuckles from the others in the room, but the President himself laughed himself for a solid ten seconds before looking a little sheepishly at the ground.

“For real,” he muttered. “Sorry about that whole presidency thing.”

end