We are at our stations, at the reference desk. We are librarians. We are not all over-helpful, slightly bumbling misfits, cardigan-sweatered and sensible-shoed, terminal nerds or bluestockings with houses full of cats, though some of us are (and very sweet if you get to know us). Nor are we all fleshpot beauties lurking behind thick glasses and severely tailored business jackets, having only to remove them, shaking out our thick chestnut hair from its tidy bun, to become firecrackers in bed. Nor are we all stern, pursed-lipped obstructionists with starched gray hair, support hose and an unfailing belief in regulations. What we really are, is all these things at once. We know how to dig up information, and we want to help you out. We are also possessed of total numerical recall, mindful of every book you have ever returned late, ready at any time to present you with your exact fine accrual.
Just before the 10 a.m. opening, they are piled outside the glass lobby doors of this run-down, flat-roofed concrete pile — a building that has seen better days. Fifty or 60 of them, a heaving impatient mass, ravenous as if waiting for someone to throw them meat. The inspectors in khaki uniforms unlock the doors and they surge forward as one person, shoving and pushing to be the first to check out the internet stations. Parked outside are their luggage and grocery carts, each weighted with its sad complement of return-for-deposit bottles, blankets, half-eaten cans of cold beans, row after row of grimy plastic bags hanging from metal rods like round fermenting cheeses, heavy with stinking and unknowable cargo. Yesterday the inspectors stopped one man who had positioned himself directly in front of the door, clutching his 3-foot high stuffed raccoon: “You can’t bring that in here,” and the man, “I gotta right like everybody else.” The others pushed in around him, like foaming water rushing around a boulder.
They come to the library. They come to be safe. They come to get out of the sun. Outside there is the street, the cars that stop for nothing, sidewalks lined with palm trees, arrogantly tall, anorexically slender, with nothing to offer the sidewalk dwellers, not even shade. If you can’t afford your own shade, then bake! The palms, rows of laurel-crowned heads, see only what the others see, their sights set upward: the Hollywood sign, mansions on the hills, the blue reflected from swimming pools, oak chaparral and the scent of night-blooming jasmine, the beaches at Malibu, Palos Verdes and far-off Catalina, or east to the cool heights of Arrowhead. During the Santa Anas, the windstorms blow down their leavings, enormous dry fronds that scatter in the roadways, piling up, a driving hazard until sanitation comes to take them away. Rats make their nests in the frondy crowns, crawling down the trunks at night to forage untroubled in the dumpsters. In this city, even the rats have a commute.
They come to the library. They set up camp. As long as they don’t fall asleep, or harass the other patrons, or panhandle, or act out in any way, they can stay as long as they want. In the jargon of this profession, they too have their “information needs.”
So we wait, at the reference desk. We are librarians. Highly trained professionals, ready to answer questions.
One man, brown hair stiff on his head, right leg also buckling under him, lopes over from his internet station to the reference desk. “I wanna know how ta spell a word.”
“Yes?” We pick up a copy of Webster’s, open it.
“Howdaya spell pornography?”
The woman with wiry kabuki-wig hair walks with a curious jolting bunny hop, like a toddler, or a middle-aged Japanese woman. Her quilted nylon windbreaker is shiny with dirt. “I want to see peectures of retarded children.” Her accent is lilting, Italian, and we look into that round Japanese-seeming face to see eyes of hazel, almond-shaped and large. She could be Sophia Lauren’s sister, now a bag lady on Wilshire Boulevard. We ask her what aspect of mental retardation she is interested in. “Yais, peectures of retarded children, I want to see.” We take her to the section on special education, search through the books for photographs, show her. Her eyes narrow fiercely, and a harsh whisper erupts from her. “Monkeys! They look-a-like monkeys! See?” and she shoves the open book before our face, as we did to her a moment ago. We leave her in the stacks, her accusatory whisper stabbing the air. “Like-a-monkeys!”
The mumbler approaches the desk. Today he has inked the name TIM in black on his forehead. He is tall, gangly, scarecrow-thin, and his jeans, stiff with crud and tied with a bit of electrical cord, are sliding down his emaciated butt. Should he turn his back to us, there will be the last few vertebrae of his spine, standing out like the neck bones of a chicken, and below it, the coin slot. “I wanna nyumpumph hum nelabamhum nyum buhum.” He looks at us expectantly with his bright blue eyes.
“We’re sorry,” we say. “What did you say?”
“I said, I wanna hum nyumb lumphumbubhum nyuhum.” His smell is so bad, months unwashed, that we try to breathe through our mouths. Sue goes behind the desk for a spray can of Glade.
“We’re sorry,” we say. “Please speak clearly. We can’t understand you when you mumble.”
The Mumbler is incensed. “Don’t you dare speak to me like that. I was a systems analyst at IBM.” He takes a fistful of golf pencils and a stack of 3x5 paper sheetlets and shuffles off to one of the tables around the corner, by the Spanish books, out of our line of sight. Sue industriously sprays the air where he has just stood, and the smells of piney floral scent and caged animal collide in a stuffy sweet stench.
The next one has open pink sores on his hands, blackish with dirt, from which a clear fluid seeps. His nose is brick-red, flaking with sunburn. He has wheeled his plastic luggage cart crammed with plastic Vons bags into the library and limps with a hospital cane gripped in his left fist. His accent is English and acidic. “I want reviews of the following movies: Rounders, Reservoir Dogs, Blue Velvet, Stalin, and Natural Born Killers. I also want their year of release and a full listing of all their awards. I’m going to the bathroom now. Work on that and have it ready by the time I get back.”
Inspector Mike stops him on the way to men’s room. “Mr. Wycombe, we’ve spoken to you about bringing your cart in here. You’ll have to leave it outside.”
Mr. Wycombe’s face hardens. His accent grows even more British and acidulated. “This is outrageous. I’m handicapped. I have a bad back. I need my cart in here with me.”
“We’ve been through this, sir. It’s a potential hazard to the other patrons.”
“I have a letter from my doctor.”
“Sir, if you don’t put your cart outside, I’ll call the police.”
“If you expel me again I’ll sue this library.”
“That’s fine, sir, but you may not have a cart in here.”
None of this is a new problem. In the early 1900s, a concerned citizen wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, the gist of which was this: These rag-picking greenhorns, with their babble of tongues and their odious stench of garlic and perspiration, these idle hoboes and such have no right to besmirch with their presence the sacred precinct of the library, that institution that is the rightful inheritance of every taxpaying citizen of this land, of his children and his children’s children, for the greater learning and profit of this nation. Let, then, this space be protected for those who can make best use of it.
“I need to find California Penal Code 653, section G.” Through the frayed sleeves of his flannel shirt, the young man’s wrists poke out, painfully thin, the sallow skin blotched with patches of black grit. His face too is thin, sallow and grit-patched, with thin tight lips through which he sucks in air, and a pair of fiercely determined brown eyes. We dig through West’s Annotated California Codes, and arrive at the sections concerning vagrancy. “Could you make a copy of this for me? I swear I don’t have 15 cents. My court date is next week and I have to prepare. Please, help me look up some case law on this.”
Andy drops by the reference desk for a visit. He’s friendly and chatty and smells, if possible, worse than the Mumbler. “Don’t eat at the Winchell’s down on Broadway. They put cancer cells in the orange juice. I read about it in the Times.” Andy, with the lazy eye and yellowish-gray hair that falls to either side of his face like the strings of a mop: Andy is with us all day, every day, hours regular as punching a clock. Though tiresome, he is basically harmless, except when he forgets his medication and gets paranoid.
There is a commotion at one of the internet stations. Two inspectors stand on either side of a patron, a paunchy middle-aged man in a hooded sweatshirt. He is almost screaming. “I want my money back!”
“Keep your voice down, sir, or you’ll have to leave.”
“It’s your terminal that messed up. You owe me.”
“Use of our terminals is at your own risk, sir.” They half-walk, half-push him into the circulation lobby.
We call to Inspector Dave, standing near the desk with a walkie-talkie, monitoring the situation. “What’s happening?”
Dave gives a snort. “He put in his credit card number for 15 minutes on Tiffany’s Live Sex World. Two minutes in, his connection shut down. He thinks we’re going to refund his money.”
The mumbler has returned. “I nyum-bumb-bumb about Isaiah, Sovereign of the Bible, and Gray Davis of the State of California … Do you have the Gray Davis from Stuttgart University protruding from his skin? Nelabampumb buma Pat Nixon touching Nancy’s Alzheimer’s on the Web? The nancy, the nancy, the filth that is the nancy …” It is some minutes before he goes away.
The next woman wears a white T-shirt pulled over her head, falling down behind her neck and to either side of her face like a wimple, the whole covered with a thick layer of fine dirt, as if she were a sculpture set aside in an artist’s studio. “I need to get to the hospital for a doctor’s appointment and it costs $4 to get there by bus.” The stench of beer on her breath is overpowering. We call an inspector to talk to her.
“I gotta get to the hospital, and it costs $4 to get there.”
Inspector Kimberley shakes her head gently. Her face is soft. “I’m sorry, there is no soliciting in the library.”
“I’m not soliciting! I just want you to give me $4.”
“I’m sorry. We can’t give it to you.”
“Well all right then. Be that way!” The drunk woman storms off toward the lobby, turns back at the door to shout the last word. “I came to you for help!”
Pushy Russian ladies come to pick up subsidized housing forms. They are short, enormously fat, and support themselves on tree-trunk legs that taper down to tiny feet, like sofa legs wedged into too-tight shoes. They hold their aching backs and limp slightly, and exhibit the many pains caused by age and their hard lives, so that we should give them everything they want with no argument. “Vy you cannot give me ten more copies? My friends, they are sick, they cannot come here.” One woman, has filled out the form with one of our library golf pencils and thrusts it at us. We point to the address to which the form must be mailed. “Vy? Vy must I buy stamp? You take!”
Andy again, his hair a ratty curtain of tangled yellow-gray yarn, his right eye wandering crazily, holding open the LA Times under our nose. “Didja hear about that plane crash in Cleveland?” he says, stabbing at the article with a stubby finger, the nail broken and black with dirt. “Sheesh, wasn’t that awful? All those kids. Only thing worse woulda been if they actually landed in Cleveland.”
An elderly Asian man appears, his face soft and kind. The sharp white hairs poke out from his beetling eyebrows like the quills of a porcupine. Rheumy yellow gunk collects in the corner of his eyes. “Hell-lo,” he says, his voice careful and precise. “I would like to find a Spanish song. It is called ‘Sabor a Mi.’ I would like to find a recording of it, and also the sheet music, with the words in English and in Spanish.”
We look in the computer for a recording. “It seems all the CDs are currently checked out. The cassette tape too. But it would be easy to place a hold on one of them for you. There is one due in two weeks. You’ll receive a notice in the mail when it becomes available, and it costs 50 cents when you pick it up.”
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you, but no. I am too cheap. Let us look for the sheet music.”
We find a record that shows the song “Sabor a Mi” in the collection 50 Hottest Latin Hits! We write down the call number. “Be sure to come back if you can’t find it,” we say.
“Come on, Jeremy,” calls the woman approaching the desk, managing at once a huge ring of keys, a large handbag, a stack of six books, and her towheaded son. “We need to do a school report on a plant. It’s called Queen Anne’s Lace.”
We grin at her. “We? We need to do a school report?”
The mother laughs. “All right. I need to do a school report on Queen Anne’s Lace.” She glances at her son. “I got an A on my last paper.”
Jeremy hangs back, rolling his eyes.
“I can’t believe I have to do a report on Queen Anne’s Lace.” He brays the name of the herb, his voice exasperated as only a 13-year-old’s can be.
We look in Peterson’s Field Guide. Daucas carota, also known as Wild Carrot. Feathery leaves, thick woody root, tiny white flowers with a papery texture, blooming in large, flat, umbrella-shaped clusters that resemble lace doilies.
“Doilies?” Jeremy practically gags on the word.
Widespread in the meadows and roadsides of the Eastern United States. Often confused with water hemlock, which is highly poisonous. Queen Anne’s Lace is also toxic if taken in large doses. Jeremy visibly lightens. “Oooh, it’s poisonous. Tight.”
The seeds were used in folk medicine, as a contraceptive and abortifacient. The mother shoots a worried look at Jeremy. But it is clear that Jeremy, at last writing effortful sentences into his schoolbook, tongue protruding from between his lips, does not know what an abortifacient is, and has no plans to look it up.
The elderly Asian man is back. His waxy fingers hold the slip of paper we have given him.
“I couldn’t find it,” he says simply.
We hunt in the music aisles for 50 Hottest Latin Hits! The shelves are crammed with music books, librettos, scores all jumbled together, pushed on top of one another, jammed in wherever they fit. They are hopelessly out of order. The book is not on the shelf where it should be. Nor is it on the shelf above or below it.
“We’re sorry,” we say. “We can’t seem to find it right now. Maybe another patron is looking at it, somewhere in the library.”
The gentleman stands there, looking so sad and so patient. His CD is checked out, his song cannot be found, and now he is being offered empty excuses that even the librarian does not believe. Well, we hear him thinking, no matter. Suddenly, we get indignant for him. No one likes to be gotten rid of. We scan that entire section of the shelf. Nothing. Then we try switching around the numbers, searching under 728 instead of 782. Sometimes that works. No luck. We get down on our hands and knees, and pull all the books out from the lowest shelf and dump them on the floor. Jackpot. 50 Hottest Latin Hits! has fallen behind the shelves, and together with about five other books, is lodged crosswise in the gap. We lift them out, and hand the man his book.
“Thank you,” he says in his careful way. “Thank you so much. You are very helpful. Now. I have another question that has been troubling me for some time. I want to construct an octagonal aquarium. Maybe you know a book that can help me.”
We return to the computer. “How about Aquariums and You?”
“I have seen this book,” says the man. “It does not have the instructions I need.”
We spend some time searching the internet, with no luck.
“You could buy one from Petco,” we say. “But …”
“Yes,” says the man. “I am too cheap. It does not matter. You were so helpful before. I think this will be a long-term project. Thank you again.” Then the man leans in, fixes us with an eye hard and glinting as a hawk’s. “My daughter, she is on the radio, perhaps you have heard of her.”
Yes, we know her. We have heard stories about him. We have known who he is all along. This is the famous Chinese retired aerospace beachcombing handstanding walking-without-pants Malibu dad, beloved of surfers. We may have some of the particulars wrong, but we know him well. And, we admit it, as we watch him walk out the front entrance, we feel a little glow. Even the library gets its share of celebrities.
The next woman is holding tight to her daughter’s hand. “I can’t believe what’s going on in here. Our library is invaded by these stinking people. They make it impossible for us to even be in this place.” Her voice rises in shocked fury. “Our place, a public place.”
They are citizens, we explain. This is a public library. We live in a democracy, with civil rights. Everyone has a right to be here. We cannot discriminate on the basis of wealth or poverty, of cleanliness or filth. We cannot make a judgment as to who is sane or insane. We cannot forbid anyone access unless they break the law.
“My daughter says, ‘Mommy, I’m afraid of him,’ and what am I supposed to tell her? She doesn’t want to come here, and nothing that I can see is being done about it.”
“We understand how you feel,” we say soothingly. “Please take a moment and fill out one of the suggestion forms on the table. The administration takes them very seriously.” We feel like saying, You’re right. The library has no idea how to handle the homeless. Glad you pointed that out. But we know better. Once we were summoned to the Chief Librarian’s Office. The Chief Librarian fixed us with a steely glare. “You are put on notice. The library has an excellent policy on the homeless, one that balances all our user’s needs.” She leaned forward, stressing each word. “And it works.”
The next woman is thin as a fashion model, a hip chick, straight brown hair falling in long strands, a crooked part. Her face is round like a moon, with a slight puffiness to it, a kind of scarred bluntness. Her eyes are light brown, the color of caramels: belladonna eyes, glossy and spacey. Her eyebrow is pierced with a small silver ring.
“I need you to look up a word, but I can’t tell you what it is.”
We hoist the Webster’s onto the counter for her.
“It won’t be in there,” she says. “It’s Polish.”
We walk with her to the foreign language section, pull out the Polish dictionary, set it on one of the tables.
She looks at us blankly. “I don’t know how to spell it.”
“But you won’t say what the word is.”
“Please help me,” she says.
“How can we help? We don’t know Polish either. And we can’t read your mind.”
“I can’t tell you,” she says.
We shrug. “Well, it’s up to you. The dictionary’s there.”
“Wait.” And she says in a low voice, “Coor-vah.”
We open the dictionary, fiddle through the K’s. We find it, but even before we do, we know what it means. We read Sophie’s Choice. We point out the entry for her. Kurwa: prostitute, whore.
“Sorry, but why do you want to know this word?”
“My boyfriend calls me that. He calls me that but he won’t tell me what it means. See, he’s like my soulmate, he’s closer to me than I even am to myself, but he’s really mean, too. It’s like that, sometimes, with soulmates. You have so many things in common with them, you think they’re part of you, but then they can be so cruel.
“Listen, I write poetry, that’s what I do, and just last night he told me that all the poetry I ever wrote, he wrote it first. He thought it up and telepathically beamed it into my brain, so that I would write it down and think it was mine. He says he’s been doing that for years, even before he knew me. I have a journal, and he says that everything I wrote in my journal, every interesting thought I ever had, he beamed it to me. He wanted me to think I had written it, but really I could never think it up myself. He said only the stupid stuff was mine.”
Against our better judgement, and all our training, we decide to say something.
“This isn’t your soulmate,” we say. “He is messing with your mind, and you are letting him do it. You need to get away from him.”
“How? He told me I can’t.”
“Of course you can. There are woman’s shelters. We have telephone numbers for you.”
“It isn’t like that.”
“It’s up to you, of course. But if you want it, help is out there.”
The woman almost wails. “But where?”
The next man, wiry and coal black, in a grimy Dodgers sweatshirt, scribbling on a piece of paper. “Can I help you?” we ask. He pushes the scrap of paper at us.
“My Face is Black,” it says in large penciled letters.
“Yes?” we ask.
He jabs his finger decisively at the paper.
“Yes, we see that.”
“No!” His tone is utterly exasperated. “Check the computer!”
Hot-faced, we find C. Eric Lincoln’s autobiography My Face is Black, on his life in the Panthers. Thankfully, the book is in.
“I already know my face is black,” the man says.
“Hunh, what a day,” says Andy. The LA Times crinkles in his hands as he spreads it open for us, on the desk. We see dry white skin flaking from his knuckles. “Look here, this story about a guy who married one of a pair of identical twins. Now he’s in court for a divorce. The judge asks him why and he says, ‘Your Honor, every once in a while my sister-in-law comes to visit, and because she and my wife are so identical looking, sometimes I end up making love to her by mistake.’ The judge says, ‘Surely there’s some difference between the two women,’ and the guy says, ‘You bet there is — that’s why I need the divorce!’”
It’s 9 p.m. We are closing, turning off the computer terminals, reshelving the reference books, getting ready to go home to our houses full of cats, our microwave Stouffer’s dinners, our Latin lover with the smoldering dark eyes, whose existence no one suspects. Everyone who was waiting outside at 10 a.m. is now trailing out the door, save those few stragglers still glued to their internet stations, whom the inspectors are trying to pry loose. They collect their shopping carts, wheeled junk floats, and shuffle with their burden, like hermit crabs who must drag their houses with them wherever they go, to the dumpster, alleys that they share with the rats, or down to the shelters off Olympic. The man standing alone in the streetlamp’s amber glow has an upside-down pentagram tattooed in blue on his forehead. He cries into the intersection. “Oh Lucifer, you blind me with your splendor!”
This piece was selected as runner-up for the 2017 Torch Prize for Creative Nonfiction awarded by North American Review, a quarterly literary magazine that was founded in Boston in 1815 by journalist Nathan Hale and is now published by the University of Northern Iowa (Cedar Falls).