Library Memories, from my favorite retired librarian

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December 6, 2014 by kittynh

Ellie is a wonderful friend, and also a retired librarian.  I’ve written about her before, and she also is the author of one of the best blog posts ever written on Yankeeskeptic.

Here she kindly shares some of her memories of being a librarian.

Part one of this series is located here. So please enjoy Ellie…..

reading cat

In my last blog, I talked about two of the memorable people I met in my travels as a librarian, but there are so many more. There is a class of patrons known as “regulars.” These are people, often quirky, who use the library so often and so widely that most librarians in the building know who they are. Sometimes we had nicknames for them, since we did not know their real names, occasionally a bit disparaging but usually somewhat affectionate. When I know their names, I will refer to them by initial, but if not, I will use their library nickname or other moniker. There was the Tutor Lady, so called because when we first got to know her she would pay homeless people to let her read to them. Always turned out nicely with a chignon, some also called her Miss Manners because of her resemblance to Judith Martin. Sadly, over the years, theTutor Lady began to deteriorate. Her clothing became tattered, her hair wilder and wilder, and her manner more and more erratic. When we went online, she gamely learned to use email, and to the probable dismay of a number of officials, became good enough at it to send the mayor, comptroller, governor, and others lengthy and informative missives.

The she faded from sight. I was concerned at not seeing her for the last couple of years I worked, but a few weeks ago the mystery was somewhat solved. My sister and I were at a mall, questing for cute shoes for me, as I no longer have to wear sturdy, supportive footwear. We sat down at a table outside of Starbucks to have a glass of iced tea and discuss shoe strategy, when I glanced at the next table and did a double take. There sat the Tutor Lady, sedately reading the newspaper, clothes a little more presentable, hair a little less wild. She did not notice me, and probably would not have recognized me out of context, but I was glad to see her flourishing.

There was also Mr. L, a continually agitated man who would borrow long playing records. This was in the days when the Fine Arts department also included the audio recordings, at first vinyl only. The limit was ten per library card, and Mr. L would bring in his card, both his parents, with whom he lived, and several siblings’ cards and borrow 40-50 records at a time. Eventually we tried to limit him, especially as we suspected he was not returning some, and got him down to three library cards. He was loud and angry and combative at best. When we got compact discs, a major event, he jumped right on that bandwagon as well. He came in multiple times per week and often on the weekends, taking out cartloads of materials and being an annoyance. However, through channels of my own, I learned a little about his life, most notably that he was severely bullied when living in a dorm at the University of Maryland. I didn’t share this information, but my toleration of his antics increased.

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“GOD IS LOVE” would boom in my ear, and I would know it was Mr. B on the phone. I don’t know if Mr. B was a clergyman or just really, really interested in the bible, but he would often call with intricate questions about the scriptures and the original languages. After some years, his calls became more offbeat. I noticed first when he began to obsess with the number 8 in the bible and its meanings. When we were not able to find enough in our bible and religious resources, we referred him to our Business, Science, and Technology department where numerology resides.1 Mr. B’s obsession with the number 8 grew and expanded beyond the bible. He also expanded his greeting when  he called to “God is Love! Thank you for getting up today! Thank you for coming to work today! Thank you for answering my question today!” It was a little sad to see him go from quirky to a little unbalanced.

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Uniformly unusual throughout my career, and we did help her pretty much every day for the 37 years I worked, was Miss D. Also known as the Death Lady, the vast majority of Miss D’s questions revolved around, yes you guessed it, death. She once asked if it would hurt if she were hit by a bus. She also wanted to know how loud it would be if she had a million German Shepherds in her house. Her voice was very flat with a strong Baltimore/Dundalk accent.  Her questions were usually preceded by a ritualistic prologue where she would recite an ever expanding list of comments before she got to her questions. She learned that with me, she needed to be briefer and would hold it to “You’re a liberrian and you have to help other people too, right?”

Miss D lived in some sort of group home, as far as we could tell, or it might have been an apartment. Her best friend was a homeless man who was banned from her building because of his behavior, and she missed him tremendously. She had had a cat that died, which left her grieving as well. She once was a little perturbed over a comment from the cat’s doctor. “The vet said to the cat that his mommy was coming back. Am I really his mommy?” I explained that it was a figure of speech. Then things took a somber turn, about a year ago. Miss D called and announced to me that she was going to kill herself. I kept as calm as I could and alerted my supervisor. I was uncertain about what to do, but matters resolved themselves well.

It transpired that Miss D was about to be evicted from her home for bad behavior. Her suicide attempt was a literal call for help—she wanted to get into the healthcare system. In the hospital they evaluated her and found her a bed in an institution. After that, we seldom heard from her. Either she has less access to the telephone or is kept busy in a constructive way.

girl-reading-under-tree

Not all of our regulars got worse as time went on. A case in point was Mr. T. Instead of envisioning a mohawked man with gold chains all over him, picture a medium height rather pudgy man with a day’s growth of beard. At the beginning, his main pursuit was listening to records at our listening stations. He would not speak unless absolutely necessary and would communicate through gestures, grunts, and presenting his library card for the headphones. He was not deaf or mute, just extremely reluctant to speak and unwilling to establish eye contact. He would look at the ceiling while transacting business, and turn his head if he couldn’t avoid my face.

Once I was involved in a court case against a man who had been stealing valuable art books and selling them. This involved getting several subpoenas and the sheriff and I got to know each other. One day the sheriff walked in, and I laughed and said, “Just slap on the handcuffs.” He laughed, gave me the paper and went on his merry way. Mr. T heard the exchange, assumed he was the one destined for the cuffs, and went into the hallway where he met my supervisor. The head of the central library at the time was a woman who had neverworked public service and was unfamiliar with dealing with our regulars. To her eye contact was essential. She kept shoving her face into his to establish eye contact and he became more and more agitated. When I realized what was happening, I grabbed her and hissed, “He doesn’t like eye contact!” She backed off, I explained that it was a joke and that the sheriff was only interested in me, and all was well. I hasten to add that I never again made such a joke at the library. Years went by, and I noticed that Mr. T was getting more relaxed. He would even say a word or two, and then he progressed to sentences while speaking to me and others. The crowning event was when I printed out the movie credits for an actress which he had requested, handed it to him, and he said, “Thank you.” I don’t know how or why, but Mr. T decided to rejoin humanity.

Paris, you take the good with the bad!  Also that darn bag isn't coming next visit!

There were so many others. The Billie Jean Man who came in every day for about two years to go into our listening booth and listen at full blast to “Billie Jean” from Michael Jackson’s Thriller over and over for his allotted hour. The Good Morning Man who walked the circumference of every department every morning for a number of years proclaiming, “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!” The woman who declined to use our computers because they were inhabited by evil spirits, which actually explained a lot about our computers.

I will mention one last patron by his name, Johnny Williams. He loved to come in weekly and look at our very specialized martial arts books, which were kept in the office and used in the department only, while we held his valid library card. One day I checked his library card to find that he now owed large fines. I explained to him that he needed to pay the fines to continue, and he looked at me sadly. He explained that he came on the bus every week, but was getting weaker and weaker because of his AIDS. Sometimes he was too weak to carry the books back in and was returning them later and later. This was in the late 1980s, and as I looked at him I did indeed see a telltale purple splotch on his neck. My heart broke. A few days later, I talked to the head of the circulation department and asked her to forgive the fines, which she did. The next time he came in, I went over to where he was browsing. “Mr. Williams! I have good news!” He looked at me startled for a moment, and then said, “You called me by my name?” I was a little taken aback, but I continued with my news and explained that his fines had disappeared. He was so pleased. When I thought about it later, I realized that, probably, most people did not address him by name. He only came in for a few weeks more. I made sure from then on that whenever possible I addressed our regulars by name.

Some people are annoyed by the eccentricities of our regulars, but I rather enjoyed the variety and range of our customer base. I did my share of complaining, but all told, these are people who helped to expand my world.

1 According to the Library of Congress Classification system, the paranormal and occult count as part of the BF psychology classification

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One thought on “Library Memories, from my favorite retired librarian

  1. Elaine says:

    I still remember some of the regulars. Mr. L, who could forget him? And the lovely elderly woman who used to come in once a week to listen to the same recordings of spirituals. The homeless fellow who disappeared one day and a couple months later came in, clean shaven and wearing clean clothes to say he’d gotten off the streets. It was so nice to know he was well and thriving.

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