bookstores, strangers, books, reading, librarians, kindness, be a better human, talking

Prying book eyes

On a recent library book binge, I brought home a hefty stack of books. My lovely housemate saw the stack, and asked me about one title: Being Peace by Thich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. She collects quotations and happened to have a few from his writings. She shared this one with me:

“Though we all have the fear and the seeds of anger within us, we must learn not to water those seeds and instead nourish our positive qualities – those of compassion, understanding, and loving kindness.”

Since I’m the Angry Librarian, this interested me, and we had a thoughtful conversation about how life and the workplace may bring out some of these very seeds and how we need to smile and shake it off.

In yet another library, last week I needed to print something before I went to the printer-haven of work, and popped into a public library I’d never visited. In order to use one of the computers, I was asked to provide a photo ID. I watched as the librarian wrote my name and guest pass number on a piece of paper, and brainstormed the many reasons they might wish to monitor who is visiting what sites within their walls. (I could only come up with potential issues arising from illegal activity.)

In my experience through library school and in the public library where I work, though, there is a current, obsessive trend with library privacy. My own library just switched to a different hold pick-up system, where customers can retrieve their items from a shelf and use self-check machines (grab-and-go style). Before this new process could begin, there were evidently many lengthy meetings about where on the book to put a sticker containing what identifying information. Should the sticker display the customer’s full name? Should the title of the book show?

As for myself, I fail to see how this conversation could last more than 15 minutes. And yet, it lasted. (The end result that was decided is the sticker will be arranged alphabetically by full last name and cover the title of the book. I know you were dying to know.)

Let me address, I did not like being asked for my identification in order to use a public computer. The implications did not jive with my knowledge of privacy. I fully recognize the importance of protecting online privacy–our and all libraries use some form of a program called Deep Freeze, which wipes all data from each customer login after they sign out. (Even still, sometimes that doesn’t work, so if anyone out there is worried about their digital footprint and who is looking at it, always manually sign out of your accounts, and under no circumstances store passwords on a public computer, as a principle.)

However, I just don’t think that people in public spaces can expect (nor can those public spaces guarantee) complete and total privacy. This is absurd and paranoid to me, as it seems counterintuitive to expect that no one will see (or that anyone would care) what books people are holding in their hands. And, not to mention, this extreme privacy doesn’t allow for every romance or friendship that started because someone was curious enough to look at what book the other was holding, and then take the bold and vulnerable (and sometimes well-received) gesture to start a conversation about it.

The frenzied desire to block all others out irritates me. I can’t help but feel that anyone in a public library is freely forfeiting at least a tiny bit of their privacy just by stepping into  a public space. How is carrying a book around any building not placing someone “at risk” of revealing its title? And, if someone is truly ashamed of their reading material, why would they request it to be held for them instead of venturing in and selecting it, by hand, by themselves?

I think back to a woman I had in my line at the bookstore when I was 19. This glamorous 30-something placed a small pile of books on the counter, barely raising her lips in greeting when I smiled and said hello. I, observing her gorgeous diamond ring, turned my eyes to the books. All three were about surviving the death of a spouse. I was shocked that such a horrible event could happen to someone so young and pretty, and I hoped I didn’t offend her or make her sadder during this, the symbolic purchase. Unsure how she would want me to act in this minor exchange, I tried not to widen my eyes and tried harder to eliminate any pity from my voice. More than anything, I was proud of her. Here was this young woman, whose own eyes (once I looked up from the ring) I could see were red and puffy. She was obviously not shopping for a gift. She was in mourning.

And she bought these books to help herself heal.

She did not buy them online, preserving her privacy as she sobbed in her pajamas. She very easily could have, and would have, if she were embarrassed of her emotionally vulnerable state, or concerned with how the young, desperate for adult life and love cashier or other browsing strangers would treat her.

Instead, she braved the world. She drove to us, got out of her car, located the section she needed, and from the shelf, handpicked not just one, but three books, in what I interpreted as her sadness and desperation morphing into resolve: a series of clear actions she took towards helping herself. I hope those books and all this time gave her what she needed.

And I am grateful for the spontaneous human connection that books, bookstores and libraries can provide. The fleeting moments with strangers where we mutually reveal something of ourselves.

We deserve to relinquish privacy on occasion. We need to leave room for vulnerability.

books, bookstores, community, coworkers, kindness, librarians, lists, strangers

All in a day’s work / when to call 911

I love my part-time job. It is a bustling public library, and this Saturday there were hardly any open seats to be found. I did not mess up/misinform anyone, and I fully remembered passwords and phone numbers! It was overall a great day full of happy customers, right up until someone had to call the police.

Here is a lengthy list of customers I encountered. It is a lengthy list instead of actual paragraphs because I am lazy.

  • a young gentleman about 8 years old just approached the desk, his eager expression paired with a precocious personality, capped off (hehe) with a safari hat. He was returning a library card he found on the ground outside. As my colleague was calling its new owner (she just got the card today), I recognized walking by me the young man from The Ones Who Call, though his red hair has darkened a fair amount since last I saw him.
  • guy who taught me and another 20-something coworker how to change typewriter ribbons (also the only customer who uses floppy-disk reader)
  • guy who chatted me up for an uncomfortably long time and when he learned I worked at a school, wanted me to tutor his daughter (same guy who keeps newspapers for 4 hours inconsiderately)
  • old guy lawyer who wants me to tutor him in “computers” because I showed him how to get a DVD to play. (Hint: by not having a broken DVD drive, and inserting the DVD.)
  • phone calls, all answered by separate people who remarked about bad connection where we couldn’t hear the customer (x4, very annoying) and when the call finally came through, the coworker who answered knew the woman and talked to her for some time. She was calling for a James Patterson book, and spoke at length with my colleague because her husband has recently died. If I had answered the phone, I wouldn’t have known her or his name–but my colleague did, and shared with her her remembrance of his daily library ritual for 8 years as he picked up her books. She told me we started shipping the books home two years ago, so she hadn’t seen him. She felt for the customer. This coworker is a sweet, gentle lady who once gave me a shirt she bought for her daughter because she “bought it for my daughter at the outlets, she doesn’t want it, but I know it will look good on you!”
  • lady caller who asked if we have scanners: yes! How much do they cost? Nothing! Thanked me profusely when she came in.
  • spotted from across the floor two teen girls trying to eat a croissant (the flakiest of the foods are generally frowned upon, as the signage indicates). One was looking directly at me, head lowered in the international sign of trying-not-to-get-caught, which is the opposite of furtive. Busted. Maintaining the eye contact, she re-bagged the croissant.
  • sweet lady who is in here all the time but doesn’t have a card with us asked for a new true crime book about that athlete who murdered someone also by James Patterson (this guy has eleventy million ghost writers and produces eleventeen billion books a year), and because she couldn’t check it out, she wanted to know how much the book would cost her. I told her how much it would be at the local independent bookstore, and then how much on Barnes & Noble, then Amazon. She thought that a lower price at BN meant maybe it wasn’t selling well. I explained how bestselling authors’ books go directly to the bestseller’s promotional price in the hopes that more people will buy them. Myth busted.
  • gentleman in his late 70s who is friendly with most of the staff. (Long ago, before I was close with him, I helped him print out his legal documents for end-of-life wishes.) Yesterday he wanted to make plans for his out of town guests visiting for Memorial Day weekend and asked for my help in museum-planning.
  • teen I used to see every day when I worked in Youth Services was surprised (or feigning it for the benefit of his girlfriend and her friend) that I remembered his name. He now has a rap name, and the friend had never heard his real name before I said it.
  • lady called asking how to checkout an ebook. She learned that even ebooks have waiting lists / can only be checked out to one person at a time
  • middle-aged woman who asked for help with ebooks, and then for a book recommendation. She was looking for something quick to read, because she had been reading such heavy books–or maybe something funny, preferably fiction. Since I’m only here one day per month and don’t get to recommend books at my full-time job, I LIVE for this question, and her desired genres match up with mine, making her my new best customer. I told her books you’ve already heard of if you read my blog: Vacationland – John Hodgman; One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter – Scaachi Koul; Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng; Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty; My Life with Bob – Pamela Paul
  • Note: little girls being dragged out of the library by their fathers while protesting in French are infinitely cuter than the ones screaming and crying in English.
And then there was our building monitor, who delightedly relayed a tale from the previous night, where a lady who calls to make study room reservations (we don’t take them over the phone, but she evidently badgers) thought the library was the next Starbucks because she was asked not to have coffee near the computers. She got confrontational with him and called 911. As in the case with Starbucks, calling 911 IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE THING TO DO IN THIS SITUATION. (If you have a grievance with/are being actually harassed by someone, at least google the phone number for the local police, bypassing the EMERGENCY CALL LINE. Because that is for EMERGENCIES.) After calling 911, she apparently couldn’t stand being in the same room as the building monitor, and walked to police station… Leaving my colleague at the library to laugh with the police when they showed up.

Here are some acceptable reasons to call 911: when you hear a loud CRACK coming from our lobby because a 91-year-old lady fell and hit her head on the marble floor. When this happened, I thought she had to be dead, and I didn’t want to be the one to investigate, nor to call 911. When she realized I was paralyzed by fear of this lady dying on our floor, my coworker called and handled the emergency team’s questions. The ambulance came quickly. She did not die on our floor, was only briefly knocked out, and actually walked out of her own accord. Waved the EMTs away.

And then yesterday, two girls were not at the library any longer when one’s mom arrived to pick her up. She spent 30 minutes combing the library for her ten year old who may have walked home with her friend. Then, and only after I made two announcements on the speakers asking for her daughter by name, she called the police. This was fully warranted, but I had many questions.

Did she have the phone number for the playmate’s parents, and a call to them could have put her fears to rest? Also, why do parents continue to think the library is a babysitter? We cannot watch your children for you. There is too much else going on. I hope that these little girls walked safely home, that the mother will forever after communicate with people responsible for her child, and that the daughter is embarrassed and grounded so she doesn’t break plans with her mom ever again.

 

It has been more than three years now since I started working here, and this blue-sky, warmish weather day has made me see how many connections I have made in this town. I’m thankful for my smart, supportive, talented coworkers, and thankful I can work here even as rarely as I do. It is one of two jobs that I have worked at for longer than one year. Of course, it isn’t perfect, but it’s busy, full of (mostly) good people. To love this library is to love informing, sharing with and belonging to the community I’m a part of.

audiobooks, be a better human, books, bookstores, kindness, librarians, reading, stuff, writing

Personal Libraries

My lovely, kickass friend has a bookshelf to drool over. It is, more aptly, a book wall. A wall of books, y’all. Technically, I think it is three separate taller-than-me-ceiling-height bookshelves, nestled tightly together. The shelves of titles are arranged in that oh-so-visually-pleasing color-coded way, with some books horizontally stacked and others standing up, perpendicularizing their names.

In addition to being kind and sweet, she happens to write books for children and teens too, and is a celebrity not only in my eyes but also on social media and in the book world. Her desk is positioned directly in front of the bookwall, and is the backdrop to her promotional, author-y videos.

Naturally, when I saw this bookwall, I stared at it for a long time, like you do when you’re a book person in any new book environment. In awe, I asked her if she bought all of these books. Some were gifts, she said, but she bought the majority. It is, after all, her lifelong collection of books.

I revere this bookwall. But I do not have my own bookwall.

I now have mixed feelings about this.

There was a time, directly after undergrad, when I moved to a city where I knew one person whom I never saw, that I spent much time and money I wasn’t earning in used bookstores because I was sad and didn’t even go to the library. I missed my library at home, knew that the one near me would not be as great, and I avoided it–solid life strategy–and wanted to OWN the books I would never read. I grabbed at any title I had heard of, books by any author I had read and liked, and I amassed an unreasonable personal library of unread titles, which I dutifully lugged around any time I moved. Hoarding because maybe-someday-I’ll-get-to-this. Because I-love-books-and-more-books-are-better. Because I-wanted-my-guests-to know-what-I-read-and-liked. Because I-can-lend-my-books-to-friends-and-maybe-get-them-back-or-excommunicate-the-friend-forever.

But.. Books are heavy. They are heavy, and not free to own.

Quickly after I moved away from that used-bookstore life, I learned to divest, not to carry extra weight I didn’t need. I chose to leave my two matching bookshelves in two different states: my trusty Civic, a moving vehicle with limited space, could move only one bookshelf at at time. One now lives in my dad’s tutoring center and stores test-prep books waiting for their pupils. The other lives at my mom’s and holds my own lifelong book collection.

Even though I’ve seen it (and arranged it–in no order, alphabetical nor color), I still love coming home to my personal library. I visit my mom, of course, but I also visit my bookshelf. I spot what new additions Mom has gotten from her best friend and placed on the shelf instead of reading. Other than her few, these books are the ones that made the cut. I have actually read and cherished them. They ARE personal.

(And before you go and get into pesky questions like “why, if all of your books fit on one bookshelf, did you need two?” or “did you buy enough used books you didn’t really care about to fill up an entire bookshelf?” which I will neither confirm nor deny, I’ll point out there are several items other than books I like to place on bookshelves, such as framed photos and tchotchkes.)

I have of late prided myself on managing my expenses, and this is tied directly to not buying myself books, which is tied directly to the library. With three library cards, I am elatedly spoiled, because I have access to almost any book and audiobook that I could want under the sun. When I check audio/books out, now it is because I will read or listen to them. It is a way of being more intentional with my time, my choices, and money. I, too, have been trying to declutter and have overall fewer possessions in my living space.

But, I feel guilty. Brick-and-mortar bookstores, independent and chain alike, are suffering. People lose their jobs when bookstores don’t make money. I felt sick, checking on my Barnes & Noble family as soon as I heard about recent massive country-wide layoffs. I make any excuse I can to buy books (AS GIFTS —  you’re welcome, people) from physical retailers. I feel compelled to support authors who write such wonderful books, and the bookstores who (yes, “who,” not “that”) sell them so they can continue to employ human readers who can recommend wonderful books to human readers.

Since I met her bookwall around tax time, my lovely friend mentioned that she as a self-employed writer can expense her book purchases. Buying and reading books is RESEARCH.

My mind was blown, and then it was made up. Many people close (and even some not close! Such support!) to me have flat-out told me to write a book. Mom’s been saying it for years, and I’ve blown it off. But, like, guys.. There is a career where I could support local bookstores, earn credit card points, support creative endeavors, AND gives me a tax writeoff for buying books?!?!?!?!

The question is no longer to buy or not to buy.

Nor is to write or not to write!

The question now is: where and when can I set down roots for my future bookwall? And, how will I choose to organize my personal library?

bookstores, coworkers, librarians, talking

(That) Kind of A Manager

My current position is not perfect. However, in the interest of complaining less (which is good for you!) and focusing on positivity instead of negativity, I thought I would address my favorite part of my job, as well as celebrating some quality people who have shaped who I am in the workplace.

I supervise student employees. They are mine to boss around — er, I mean, assign/delegate tasks — though I do not schedule them or serve as their go-to contact. I am there to answer their questions, back them up with patron-related problems, and I ask them for help with tasks. They (mostly) oblige good-naturedly. Building relationships with young people has always been one of my favorites, and it influenced my choice to major in Education, to pursue student teaching a second time despite a disastrous first try, to nanny, and to work as a teacher-librarian. Of course, my college students are very different than the toddlers I used to babysit (namely in their affinity for curse words and their showing up with visible “love bites”), but deep down I just like being around people and often younger people are more open to talking and connecting with someone they don’t know well.

I loved training the newbies: showing them the ropes and fielding their questions when new situations pop up. One student at the beginning of the year was so stunned at how old some of our materials are because they had been published the same year his grandma had been born. It was sweet to see his awe at how the information within had existed as long as his grandma, and to see him think about how the book’s field of study had likely changed.

Even more than the work-related conversations, I love hearing them talk about what’s going on in their real lives: work, school, family. I love urging them, seniors or otherwise, to seek out resources that the University offers that they either don’t know about or have the motivation to utilize (here’s looking at you, Career Services :). I love listening to the Sunday girls speak in Spanglish with each other and get excited that I can understand roughly 75%. I am impressed when other students speak in fluent Hindi because it sounds so complicated, but they, bilingual, have been using it since birth. They are pre-med, nursing, engineering, or bio majors and I know I never had to study that hard in college (high school, maybe).

Whereas some students keep entirely to themselves, glued to their laptops or phones their whole shifts, the students who talk to me are my favorites. They tell me about their roommates wanting the heat up way too high, their conferences in Pittsburgh (the buildings are all brick–too much of the same color!), their public speaking assignments, faraway summer internships they’ve lined up (rent is insanely high in CA! Owning real estate and letting money roll in is such a goal!), their minors–majors stress them out, but their minors are fun passion projects like theatre, which involves set building/design and props in particular, creativity in general. The kids have wild stories — one girl humbly told me her family store was robbed over the summer, that she and her dad were held at gunpoint. She smiled and said “it was scary” but that the police caught the perpetrator shortly afterward, and did not appear shaken in the least.

And last week, during my last hour of work before a pre-announced snow day, I asked the young adults working what they were doing on their day off, and they asked me the same. My plan was to watch Coco, and hearing that, one student LIT UP. She is not one of my warm-and-fuzzy students, but she could not stop smiling about my watching it. This 20-year-old told me about how she loves the soundtrack and listens to it sometimes, and she warned me I would cry. (She was completely right.) The four of us then had a fifteen-minute conversation about “kid” movies, babysitting and its merits, and I shared my lone horror story from the single time I ever accepted a job substitute teaching kindergarten. (ONCE WAS ENOUGH. Props to all the kindergarten teachers.) I left for home that night happy for the day off, but happier to share so much dialogue, such a connection with someone young enough that I could have babysat over a movie I hadn’t even watched yet.

[THEN I watched it, and holy moly, I cannot recommend it enough. Seriously, so beautiful. Stop everything and go request it from the library. I’ll wait here!

…Great, glad you took care of that. You too will soon be able to share in the magic.]

More than anything, though, I was happy that I get to be kind of, sort of a manager, because I get to work with some cool young people. I’m that kind of manager: real with them. I go easy on them when they are cramming for an upcoming exam. I ask them questions about their family trips to visit relatives in Colombia, and I pack and label the outgoing mail alongside them because they don’t like doing it (but I do!). I try to calm their course-related anxiety and encourage them to get enough sleep every chance I get.

The best managers I’ve had have been calm, kind and available. One such person is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, whom I watched many a customer verbally abuse at the bookstore, for any number of reasons (probably related to coupons and their applicability). Through it all, no matter how rude someone was to him, he did not take it personally, nor get nasty in response. Instead, he calmly tried to reach an acceptable solution for the customer. I never saw his hair on fire (metaphorically or literally)–even though he was the manager in charge of the schedule, he maintained one of the most easygoing, goofy attitudes complete with a smile. Working with him was relaxed and productive. When I was dumped by my first love and someone in the store tried to immediately set me up with her brother, I fled to the staff room and cried hysterically to this man until he got me laughing and ready to face the floor (if not the dating scene) again. His wife, son and daughter are lucky humans! He still texts me to check in on my birthday & remains part of my support network when it comes time to apply for new jobs. Though I never observed him outwardly showing discontent, eventually, he wanted a better schedule/higher pay, and probably a job where no one screams at him, so he no longer works in retail. But when he was in it, he was the best at accommodating schedule requests and just overall being a great guy. J, you rock!

While I was awed by J’s (and almost all of my bookstore family’s) ability to remain calm under attack, I had to experience discipline from the master some years later. My supervisor in my grad school position was professional in ways I had never known. This was the first workplace other than nannying where the roster of day-to-day contacts stayed consistent. Blessed with the privilege of a non-public workplace, this woman showed me the power of introverts. Her quiet in meetings did not signal a lack of engagement, nor lack of opinion, but she chose when, how, and to whom to express herself in a deliberate matter that best served the purposes of the team. Considering that I am often physically unable to withhold my opinions, seeing her at work was enlightening and provided me with a model for how to comport myself diplomatically in a work environment. She trusted me with projects, some from the ground up (and to only minor, occasional disappointment) and to select candidates to interview for her future graduate assistants. A private person in many ways different from myself, she and I nevertheless bonded over projects, laughs and a mutual appreciation for handwritten letters. During my time working for her, we both suffered losses: she, her beloved father and I, a significant relationship. Rather than the awkwardness that can pollute the workplace post-sad event, we took care of each other. Our respective vulnerabilities did not derail work, and we gently built each other up, one poke-of-my-head-through-her-door at a time. TT, you taught me that it is not weak to take care of yourself, that an office can be a family, and that balance between work and family is possible without sacrificing dedication to either! You serve as my benchmark for how I should carry myself at work. You rule, lady! I hope this makes it into your smile file 🙂

It is strange to me that the people with whom you spend 8+ hours each day are not your chosen inner circle of friends and family. They are a bunch of randos, and today I’m thankful for my time with these two pleasant people, a lifesaver of a current colleague (seriously, H! Mister Rogers stamps!?! Such a thoughtful gift) and my sweet students.

I’m lucky to have to be around the people I do.

empathy, information, kindness, librarians, strangers

The Ones Who Call

Answering the phone at work is one of my favorite activities. I already like talking on the phone, which is more than many people can say. However, when people call in to the public library (note: I did not say THEIR public library, since we get scores of calls from far, far away), there are good chances the encounter will be positive. This is because:

  1. The caller is likely to be older. Maybe they are physically restricted and can’t make it in, but gosh darn it, they are pleasant on the phone. All it takes is a sweet old lady calling me ‘dear’ and telling me I’ve been ‘so very helpful’ and I am struck with a good mood for at least two hours.
  2. Often, a mobile customer is asking a brief question, ie “are you open?” or “do you have [this book]/a color printer/paper federal tax forms?” and in a ten second interaction, I can provide a solution to their information need. One reason I’m a librarian is that I actively enjoy answering questions and sharing information.
  3. The library employee maintains a healthy amount of control in the event that a customer becomes demeaning or inappropriate. While this does not happen often, in person or on the phone, I treasure the ability to not have to endure verbal abuse for longer than it takes me to say, “sir/ma’am, if you continue to disrespect me like this, I will hang up.”
    • My wise and talented colleague taught me a librarian lesson (our version of life lessons) one day with a customer who wanted to babble with no perceived purpose. She told the man politely, “I’m sorry, I have a customer here and I need to hang up.” And then she did! It was crazy how simple it was to reclaim her time.

That said, phone interactions can go south in many ways. You never know who will call in. There is one frequent caller who asks for various conversions of inches to millimeters and for phone numbers to businesses in the United Kingdom. It is not her questions that rub me the wrong way, but her snappish, pushy tone, and the way she does not believe what I report to her. There are weeks where patients in psychiatric facilities call us and we have to encourage them to call priests or pastors because we cannot answer their questions about sin and forgiveness. There are teens who clearly have not used their cell phones for the purposes of communicating voice-to-voice with other human beings, and people who get angry at us because we can’t hear them due to their poor cell reception.

When I worked in Youth Services, we received many phone calls from one mother whose son visited the library for many hours each school night, and Saturdays, and Sundays. He did not have a cell phone, and she knew to find him there. She called once and asked for her son and when I said sure, I will go get him, she lashed into me. “Why do you know my kid?” The thing about librarians who work with kids is that we get to know them in a safe space: what they like, what they read and what magic makes them who they are. We care about them. This is what makes good youth librarians good at their jobs. I told her that I knew him because he was there every day, and she lost it. She screamed at me about how I was judging her for having to work and not being home with her child. She told me she was tired of us at the library and how if we thought her kid was there too much, she wouldn’t let him go there after school. In between saying that that was not necessary, that of course he is welcome and we all really liked him, she projected all of her guilt and single-parenting issues directly onto me. Though I was conscious I didn’t deserve her misplaced anger, I was still rattled. When she was done berating me, I brought him to the phone to talk to her. Then I took a break to walk it off.

And then there is thank-you-for-taking-my-call guy (TYFTMCG). He earned his moniker because he begins each and every call by verifying the library employee’s name and then thanking us for taking his call. If he is not hard of hearing, he does a very convincing portrayal of someone who is, and he is notorious at our library. An elderly gentleman, he never visits our location. Just calls. All the time.  The first time I had him on the line, he verified my name. “Emory?” “My name is Emily. How can I help you?” “Ah, Emory. Great. Thank you for taking my call.” There is no one on our staff who he does not irritate. After the second call, I memorized the last four digits of his phone number (0241), so I could at least know I was headed into the Emory phone calls, mustering some degree of preparedness.

He asks inane, often un-answerable trivia questions that feel like when your mom asks you “what restaurant did we go to that one time?” or “what is that thing you were talking about that one time when we were at [that restaurant]?” He asks us to repeat our guesses around a dozen times, and often, to spell them, often a dozen times. On one such call, he asked me the name of places where pregnant girls go for counsel. This led to me near-shouting “pregnancy crisis centers!?! Abortion clinics?!!” over and over again. He also doesn’t accept your responses, which means he denies you have found the answer the whole call, and often calls back to try to speak to a different employee.

Many people have competing theories about whether he is annoying on purpose/calls us for crossword clues or Jeopardy questions, but my theory is that he calls us because he probably has dementia and forgets things he has heard about. I believe we are his external memory.

I have been thinking about this man and that boy lately. No one had seen the kid or his mother in a while, and apparently the overdue notices had come back with a forwarding address in another town, where I hope he has a new library with a great youth team. There were many dormant months when we received no TYFTMCG calls. When he called again, I was glad to hear his voice, but I’m worried that we are nearing a time when he won’t call anymore.

The phone is an exercise in kindness, in dedicating your energy to communicating with someone whose body language is absent. One bad customer service call can essentially convince anyone that the person on the other side of the phone is a fool. During my most recent shift, I returned a customer’s voicemail, and concluded my message on her machine by asking her to give us a call back. I started to give the phone number as I have done hundreds of times, paused for an awkward length, and had to conclude by stating I literally forgot our phone number, but she found it before so to try us again.

I aim to grant people as much benefit of the doubt as I hope she gave me listening to that message.

I hope she doesn’t think I’m a terrible employee. I hope she chuckles at my silliness, or understands that everyone has those days. I hope she grants that there are many reasons why the employee could have forgotten. Maybe, for example, she woke up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep, not able to fall back for another couple hours because she is moving in two weeks, breaking up with her lovely boyfriend, and her mind won’t stop, and she was in pain because her neck/shoulder muscles froze from all the tension she’s carrying but she didn’t want to call out to her very-part-time job and she is trying to make the best of the day, though she can neither remember the library’s phone number nor turn her head.

So, yeah. Conversing on the phone is a solid indicator of who a person is in a moment in time. Call your loved ones, call your libraries, call anyone you want to vet before meeting. And be kind.

judgment, kindness, librarians, strangers

Yes, sir / No, sir

As previously discussed, I leave just enough time in transit to get where I’m going on time. Sometimes I run close to the wire. Recently, I was on the opening shift and putting away the day’s newspapers just as the doors opened at 9AM. Two men walked in to the newspaper shelves, reached for their papers, and one walked out. One seated himself and I continued putting up the papers.

The one who took his news to go happens to wear women’s clothing and makeup.

The one who stayed in the room with me announced not quietly and with plenty of distaste, “it’s unnatural!”

I was the only other person in the room. I froze.

He had waited until the first customer left the room, so he wasn’t looking for a confrontation. Why, then? Was this statement for my benefit, somehow? Was he trying to gauge my reaction, or worse, did he assume that I agreed with him? Or, was he just THAT comfortable with airing his views wherever he pleased? And, was I willing to possibly be reprimanded for yelling at a closed-minded customer?

It was a real drag.

Never one to quip quickly or effectively in arguments, I instead simmered quietly over my ethical dilemma. I wanted to tell this dude that what is UNNATURAL is pumping enough carbon into the air that the glaciers are melting and it is 75 degrees for a week in the East Coast in February. Humans NATURALLY wore very few garments, and they were designed to protect them from the elements, not to designate gender or convey status.

Then I reflected a little.

When I started at the library, my initial reaction to the gentleman who wears women’s clothes was to judge him. I thought, “who is he kidding? He does not make a very convincing woman.” And, he really doesn’t. His frame is masculine, his wig is clearly that, and his makeup and clothing are out of style as well as more overdone than ‘en vogue’ women wear today. (I immediately noticed these things critically, which says more about me than about him. I was working three jobs, taking a full course load and was stressed and often bitter.) Then, however, I arrived at a conclusion. He dresses like a woman even though it is clear he is not one. Huh. He must just like it!

A similar revelation came when I listened to Eddie Izzard’s FANTASTIC audiobook about his life: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens. I know I’ve raved about this book before, but here I go again. I remember Eddie’s standup by several sketches, immortalized on YouTube and burned into my mind because they portray the scenes he talks about using Lego characters. I had forgotten that he cross-dresses. When I started the book, I realized I couldn’t remember if he was gay. He addressed this, for all the similarly clueless people like me: he isn’t. He just likes women’s clothes! Huh.

Maybe this customer had also associated cross-dressing with homosexuality, but that too is a severely backward reason to judge someone. I don’t know. All I know is, I felt conflicted enough to ask my colleague what his opinion was, whether I should have said something to the rude one. His wisdom soothed me, as he thought I could do no more than to enable all customers of the library to feel safe and welcome.

Every other colleague I asked said the same thing, even one who is undergoing gender transition. Gender is a controversial topic with them, but they agreed that as employees and representatives of the library, we can’t be on the cause crusade and must make all customers feel safe and welcome, even if it makes us ill.

Of course, three hours of debating myself later, and through many iterations of “what’s it to ya?”) I thought of what I felt was the perfect, non-confrontational but I-see-you-and-your-unkind-ways response I should have said: “to each his own.”

All of us said that if we weren’t on the clock, we would have SCHOOLED him. About gender theory and human decency. Equally as much as my silence made me cringe,  librarians’ words mean a lot.

librarians, strangers

THE Library

I did not grow up with the library profession on a pedestal, and am not entirely sure when in my adult life I learned that there was a true, physical Library of Congress. My school and public libraries were great–I learned how to pronounce “subtle” when requesting Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife and sobbed while I finished Where the Red Fern Grows in these respective locations. It just didn’t occur to me that someone at The Top needed to decide how to categorize ALL THE BOOKS (and store them for posterity).

Many librarians treat the LoC (as it is – affectionately? – called) as our profession’s Mecca, and my experience was decidedly NOT religious.

Yes, y’all, this is the road trip alluded to in my rant against the concept of “iSchools.” The story you’ve all been waiting for!

I waffled* on whether to go on the “field trip” to tour the Library of Congress. On the one hand, I felt like I “should” go. Librarians are “supposed to” view the LoC with reverence, awe and appreciation for all the organization. Plus, I hadn’t been to Washington DC since my attendance at the Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity back in 2010, which I spent throwing up in a porta-potty, violently hungover, scaring my mom so badly she told me to go to the hospital. (I am NOT a drinker, so I shouldn’t pretend to be.) I needed to wash away that experience and replace it with something far more professional.

And yet. Lester was the one driving the minivan. And as previously discussed, Lester was, in a word, insufferable.

A glutton for punishment, I decided that a behind-the-scenes tour of the LoC would outweigh the social pain. I was not correct, BUT that little circle at the center of the photo up there has a SPIRAL STAIRCASE underneath it from the non-majestic basement and I WALKED UP IT AND EMERGED INTO THAT BIG BEAUTIFUL READING ROOM.

That was the lone highlight.

The trip started at Lester’s house, at 6am. That is never a good time to be awake, in my opinion, but I consoled myself with the thought of napping for the four hour drive.

This plan was thwarted by a full-length album by the dude who sings “Les Champs-Elysees” on FULL VOLUME. In addition to being a jerky driver, Lester was sleepy and needed energy. He turned over the driving to his poor wife after 45 minutes. She was stuck driving the rest of the way, and did not change the music for the entire FOUR HOURS. Champs-Elysees is a grand song for high school French class, but dear lord, the rest of the CD went downhill fast. This early-morning torture was THE road trip party foul of all road trip party fouls.

The return trip was even worse because it was at the end of the following day, so everyone in the car, including the chattiest person in our program who happened to sit by me after we had slept in the same hotel  room the night before, was awake and talking. And talking. And talking. And talking. About what, I have blocked out in the years since, but all I know is I had had enough of these people even before the tour of the Shakespeare Library. The conversation was the only thing I could imagine worse than the French CD. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I have several witnesses who can back me up that on another occasion, as we tried to work on projects nearby during a class work period, this person waxed poetic for THIRTY MINUTES WITHOUT RECEIVING ANY QUESTIONS WHICH IS TO SAY WITHOUT ANY ENGAGEMENT FROM THE “CO-CONVERSATIONALISTS” about breakfast foods they did and did not like, and why. And WHY. Why???? WHY!??!?!?!

It is with people so blissfully out of touch with what conversation is that I have to question: how can someone BE so un-self-aware? I understand that people on the Autism spectrum are varying levels of incapable of “reading” social cues, and many people in the library world hover somewhere on or adjacent to the spectrum. In Lester’s case, how much of the elitism would be his “fault,” if he is or is not on the spectrum? How much is just his personality? Exactly how much can I blame him for his rudeness?

In youthful classmate’s case, when will they learn that beyond middle school, your circle of friends or the brunch table, no one cares at all whatsoever about your affinity for pancakes but deep hatred for waffles. And if they did care, they would show you by asking questions or replying in kind. (Yes, your preference is bizarre and contradictory because waffles and pancakes are the same batter, after all. Yes. We know.)

This was how I learned not to accept rides of extended periods of time from people I don’t like. It was also how I started deciding to do activities because I wanted to, not because I thought I should. Painful learning, but essential.

Road trips are better with friends, family, and audiobooks. And pancakes and waffles are BOTH my jam, IF you wanted to know. Please, tell me your thoughts on the matter!

 

 

*As I am known to do with any decision of any magnitude. Also, LOL waffled.. See what I did there?