[This transcript comes from a performance at Story Lab Chicago on September 18, 2013]
“If a homeless person came into your library and pissed themselves and the other patrons complained about the smell, what would you do?”
There are many things they don’t teach you in library school even when they make you read an article that asks that very same question I posed to you. However, I guarantee that you will learn your own answer very quickly working at a public library.
Four years ago, I was putting myself through graduate school for a masters degree in Library and Information Science and I was paying my bills as an “electronic resources instructor”. Not only was I responsible for unjamming the printers and manipulating the copier, but I was also tasked with teaching people how to use the computer. There was only one rule that I had to follow: I had to help everyone, no matter their level of skill, smell, or psychosis.
This was within reason, of course. My boss helped me come up with tactics that would fulfill this one rule without putting me in dangerous or hopeless situations. There is something about sitting side-by-side with someone at a computer, that compels them to tell you their life stories. This means the revealing of too much information, or as I like to call them “TMI patrons.” If you don’t have a plan of action, they could take up your whole day as if you were their therapist or social worker, instead of their computer instructor.
Being a public library employee is better managed when you can laugh, instead of cry. So to deal with the colorful group of patrons who visited our library on a daily basis, we started to identify them by nicknames we had invented.
There was this one woman who we just called “la bruja” (that means “witch” in Spanish) because of her hook nose and very mean demeanor, who inexplicably wore a fishing hat no matter what the weather was like outside. She always had some issue or complaint, demanding library receipts, refunds on her print jobs, and the newspaper she read to be always be readily available.
There was a man who we called, “Captain Underpants.” Because, like the children’s book anti-hero of the same name, this man wore his tighty-whiteys visible to all, except he wore them over his pants in order to “protect himself from people stealing his wallet or his phone.” He always insisted on using the express computer for adults, where we’d see him clearly visible in front of the circulation desk.
Then there are those who warrant their own stories, those who make you re-evaluate your assumptions about patrons and about humanity, in general.
My second ever one-on-one tutoring session brought me face-to-face with a stone-faced, hulking man who spoke to me in a gruff voice. He said that his name was Darnell and he explained that he needed to use the computer to look for a job. As soon as I sat him down at a computer in the public lab, in true TMI patron fashion, he immediately told me that he had just been released from prison after 7 years and that looking for a job was part of his probation terms.
I would lie if I said that he didn’t scare the absolute crap out of me. My boss and I had a code if she knew that I was wary of a patron; she would interrupt our session about 15 minutes in to call me back to the circulation desk. She would focus on my face and wait for a reaction to the question, “Are you alright? Do you want to keep doing your session?” I would usually take a deep breath, nod, and then head back into the lab with renewed patience and determination.
After our first session that seemed halting and uncomfortable for us both, I was surprised to hear from Darnell that he wanted to have another session with me as soon as possible to pick up from where we left off. We hadn’t gotten very far; he barely knew how to use a mouse and I was being tasked with not only teaching him computer basics, but also the concept of the Internet, developing a resume, and filling out online job applications. I felt like I was in over my head, but I was almost thrilled at this seemingly impossible task.
Week after week of grinding sessions that seemed to last for months and that also went past my carefully guarded hour-long sessions, Darnell and I seem to be making an incredibly slow progress. My job didn’t really call for practically holding someone’s hand through almost every single keystroke, repeating the parts of a website, or the use of a return key over and over and over. Darnell was lucky. He was still one of my first students and he practically drained me of every ounce of patience in my calm teaching well.
But somehow he softened to me, his voice became less gruff, and he even began to call me Miss Anita (his choice, not mine). Sometimes, patrons treated our computer appointments like it was their first day of school. Some would put on their best outfits and take care with their personal appearances. I noticed that Darnell started to do this for our sessions. Even on our “days off”, Darnell would come into library to give me updates on his progress and to practice on the computers. Often, I would end up giving him another impromptu session just because he would ask me so many questions.
After months of going on like this, Darnell didn’t come and see me as often and I began to miss his updates and his hulking frame searching the library for me. After a while, he stopped coming altogether and I began to wonder if I would ever see him again.
Many months later, another man and complete stranger to me, came up to the front desk looking for computer help. He was wide-eyed, sweaty, and nervous. This set off my sensors and I could feel my defense gate going up immediately.
“I I I heard that you teach people how to use the computer.”
“I’d like to learn how.”
“What would you like to learn?”
I was hesitant, but I had to remember the one golden rule: I have to help anyone who asks me for help. So, I set an appointment with him first thing in the morning and silently hoped that it would be so early that he wouldn’t show up.
Surprisingly, he showed up the morning of our appointment, bright-eyed, chipper, wearing jean overalls and an excited and expectant look on his face, just like a schoolboy on his first day.
We walked over to a computer together, sat down and I proceeded to work through my most basic instruction: screen, keyboard, mouse. He sat attentively, listening to every word, and even asking me thought-provoking questions. I was so utterly impressed by the end of our 15-minute session, that I felt embarrassed by being so hesitant to teach this seemingly gentle man who maybe never experienced someone giving him such one-on-one attention. I ended our session by asking him to think over what we had discussed that day and to follow-up with me for a future appointment, if he was so inclined.
I floated back to the circulation desk so high from feeling like I had really contributed to this man’s personal growth. I glowed with the satisfaction of such a great job done well, under the circumstances. That appointment was nothing of what I had expected or dreaded. It had gone more smoothly than many sessions I had in the previous months. I was so enamoured with the situation that has just occurred that I turned to my coworker and said, “What a lovely man.”
“The man I just tutored.” I pointed to his back leaving the library.
“You mean ‘Cognac man’??”
“What do you mean ‘Cognac man’?”
“Girl, that guy once tried coming into the library with a whole glass of cognac. The security guard had to throw him out!”
“Well…That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“THEN he got kicked out of the library for following and harassing women in the stacks.”
Turns out ‘Cognac Man’ was notorious to my coworkers. Apparently, he would come into the library in the mornings, sweet as can be and then he would go out, get rip roaring drunk, and come back in the afternoons after I was done with my shift and harass and stalk every single woman in the building.
I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to make of this news. Who knows how long I stood there, my mouth agape, my stomach dropping, and my brain refusing to believe.
Weeks went by and I would hear from my coworkers that Cognac Man came in asking for me almost everyday. But somehow he could never get my schedule right. He didn’t want help from anyone else and was insistent on working with me again. It wasn’t unusual for patrons to get attached to a person who helped them, especially a person who might be described as “too nice.” The next time I saw him, he was being ejected from the library for disorderly behavior and I was relieved that I’d never have to deal with him again.
Darnell, on the other hand, popped back into my life in a completely unexpected place. My boyfriend at the time and I were doing our grocery shopping for the week and I heard someone shouting, “Miss Anita! Miss Anita!” from one of the aisles. Of course, there was only one person over the age of 12 who would be calling me that. I turned to see Darnell’s face shining with pride and looking so different from the man who had walked into my library just a year previous.
He ran up to my boyfriend and I standing frozen and bewildered in the cereal aisle and almost breathlessly said, “Miss Anita. I’m so happy to see you!”
“I know! It’s been so long, Darnell. What are you doing here? Where have you been?”
“I found a job here! I’ve been working as a bagger full-time and I couldn’t be happier. I feel like my life is finally going in the right direction and I wanted to thank you for helping me.”
I really didn’t know what else to say. I even had to resist the urge to embrace him.
From that moment on, every time I think about Darnell, his hard work, our grueling computer sessions and the hope that his life was really going in the right direction, I feel that floating feeling again, only this time it has yet to stop.