Daniel Rubin: Boy's librarian friends to the rescue

After his bike was vandalized at a library, Hieu Nguyen, 12, gets a new one from Whitman branch librarian Heather Warren.
After his bike was vandalized at a library, Hieu Nguyen, 12, gets a new one from Whitman branch librarian Heather Warren. (DANIEL RUBIN / Staff)
Posted: August 25, 2011

On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, Hieu Nguyen stops by the Santore branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia hoping to scare Elizabeth Corbett.

The tiny, spike-haired boy will leap out of the stacks and shout hello to the librarian. She'll say, "Hi, Hieu. How are you?" delighting in her musical salutation. And the boy will answer, "Well, thank you." It goes like that.

She knows a little about him. How he moved here from Vietnam with his parents less than a year ago, how they work all day in a factory so he spends his afternoons bicycling between two libraries.

How he won a contest this summer at Corbett's branch by reading more than any other child.

On Friday, 12-year-old Hieu was not so well.

He did what he always does at Santore - help Corbett put away DVDs, and lose himself in arts and crafts books, photography books, books that don't have many words.

While he was inside, someone walked away with his front wheel.

He'd parked his bike outside the branch and locked only its frame to a rack on Carpenter Street. Heather Warren, a librarian at the Whitman branch, happened to be at Santore that day. Hieu reads in her branch every Wednesday and Thursday and the other part of Friday.

She and Corbett rushed outside with Hieu and another boy to examine the crime scene. They brought in Tyrone Bland, the security guard.

Hieu was sobbing.

He has lived in Philadelphia only since December, and already he has had his cellphone and scooter stolen. Now, someone had wrecked the bicycle his mother needed to get to the market the next morning.

The two-wheeler wasn't even Hieu's. It belonged to the woman who rented the Nguyens their one-room apartment at Seventh and McClellan.

"He was just brokenhearted," Corbett said, "and scared." Nothing like the boy she calls her star.

"The first time I saw him, he was just this fearless little non-English-speaking kid with huge dimples and a huge smile who decides he can use these public libraries to get through this country to develop language skills and community and create a space for himself. He's done that with such tenacity. Not having that bike, it's a huge deficit in his life."

Hieu walked home that day, terrified of the way his parents would take the news. Corbett didn't see him at her library Monday.

On Tuesday, Warren called Hieu, asking if he was planning to stop by. She had something for him.

I'd seen a posting on Facebook, the librarians asking if anyone had an extra wheel or bike that would fit a tiny frame. I arrived with a translator in tow - our technology guru Hai Do, who himself emigrated from Vietnam at 17.

We got there in time to hear Warren say, "Hieu, I have a present for you. You know what a present is?"

The boy beamed. He was supposed to sit next to Corbett, but couldn't stay still.

He hopped up and down and pressed his face to a window where he could see Officer Bland in a back room, pumping up the front tire of a small red Rallye bicycle. Warren had picked up the used bike at Goodwill for $25. "I didn't want it to be a target," she said.

Hieu turned and made a Shhhh! gesture, and his dimples deepened. Not hard to see why the librarians have fallen for the boy.

I was amazed he had the patience to tell us his story. In Vietnamese, he described how his mother was upset when she heard someone had stolen the bike's wheel, but that Hieu's father had been calmer.

The three Nguyens left the coastal city of Nha Trang in December and chose Philadelphia because an aunt lived here. She took her nephew to a library in January so he could do his homework there quietly - he's a rising fifth grader at Southwark Elementary. He has come almost every day since.

As Hieu spoke, he kept stealing looks at the bike.

"It's beautiful," he said, flashing those Chiclet teeth. "Very cute. It will let my mother go to the markets on Saturdays."


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin

at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com,

or @danielrubin on Twitter.

Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.

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