I write from the public library, which doubles as my city’s daytime homeless shelter. I spend four hours a day there reading and writing. Other patrons, often accompanied by all of their worldly possessions, go there to sleep, masturbate, and stare blankly at the lights. Isn’t this what the local Greyhound terminal is for?
A diversion program for juvenile delinquents apparently meets daily on the first floor. Since the building’s architect imprudently designed the library as a giant open space without walls, their promiscuous use of the “f” word and spirited imitations of famous rappers travel unimpeded to me on the third level — more of a platform two stories above the ground than a separate floor. To encourage such misbehavior, a local library — thankfully not the one I visit — begged its town’s government for $2,000 to buy video games. Libraries once served as refuges against noise. Now the library’s cacophony makes an iPod necessary equipment to drown out the din.
Openness yields to secretiveness elsewhere. Computer cubicles double as makeshift peep-show booths. To protect privacy at the public library, staff has generously equipped computer screens with a tinted gloss that makes the visuals invisible to all save those who look upon them at a direct angle. I mostly glimpse social media and computer games on the screens when I pass. Occasionally, pornographic videos jump out at passersby. Noticing the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, is terribly offensive, so I make it my business to mind my business around pervs who make their business everybody’s business.
My travels have awarded me similar experiences beyond my parochial outpost. A visit to the Boston Public Library invites the question: what good is a beautiful building that smells like urine? In San Francisco’s main library, I witness four legs sharing a bathroom stall, a transsexual engaging herself in a heated argument, and a security guard loudly informing a fellow patron: “You can’t take your shoes and socks off in here.”
Last week, a librarian at the Harvard archives chastised me for holding up a document with both hands to read. The paper, one of many Xeroxes of the original in the folder, required no delicate handling. But I meekly obeyed and appreciated the archivist’s commitment to her craft. Shushing and scolding should be part of the job description.
My library outsources this aspect of the job to burly men far less intimidating than so-stern four-eyed matrons. The presence of several security guards, buttressed by a city policeman doing rounds, serves as a tacit acknowledgement that the library attracts the wrong crowd. Since my dress code roughly matches a Hill Street Blues-era Bruce Weitz, the homeless making a home of the library mistake me for one of their number. It would be terrible if anybody saw through the disguise. The badge bearers haven’t questioned me about my unusual library activities yet. How long before a face buried in a book brings suspicions?
The alleys of books require the uniformed patrols as much as any urban alley. Earlier this month, police arrested a didler for molesting a 15-year-old girl at a library in Queens. Around the same time, a registered sex offender attacked a 13-year-old boy in the bathroom of the Orange County Library. Three weeks ago in Newton, Massachusetts, a thief stole a patron’s laptop and attacked him when he objected. Cell phone conversations interrupting the solace of quiet remain the least of a library-goer’s concerns.
Mission creep invites creeps. Library, which traces its etymology to the Latin word for book, has come to mean free DVDs, CDs, video games, and Internet. To the ne’er-do-wells roaming the stacks, library means a place to cop a free feel and grab a free laptop. When librarians go slumming for patrons, the slum’s problems become the library’s.
The bizarre folkways that surround stimulate anthropological interest more than formal complaint. Alas, unpleasant company is always the price of free.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons