Working From The Margins

pile of booksLike many others in Minneapolis, I adore the public library. I have built a queue of books on my “Request” list that rivals that of my Netflix queue. Whenever I hear about a new book I want to read, I search for it on the library’s online catalog, accepting in advance that I will most likely have to add it to my list of requests.

I patiently wait. “Oh, look,” I might think. “I’m now number 128 on the list for that novel. I remember when I was 234. Progress!”

The result of all this requesting is that books tend to come in every week. Sometimes it is one per week, sometimes six will somehow show up, like a book landslide. “Watch for books falling from your queue list.”

As a result of all this reserving, queuing and holding, I’m somewhat of a regular at my neighborhood branch. Granted, I don’t hang out there reading People Magazine or the newspapers. I don’t secret myself away in one of the window nooks to do “research” while hacking into a handkerchief. I don’t sit on the computers on a beautiful summer afternoon searching Google for images of Jennifer Lopez or the cast of Jersey Shore.

But still… I’m often there twice a week, depending on the book pick-up schedule and if something is waiting for me that I particularly want. So I encounter not only the library patrons who are there to Google or conduct research on monsters of the Great Lakes. I encounter the library staff.

It seems to me, through observation and even experience, that government jobs, whether city, state or federal, are often for the broken and unhappy. Of course, any one of us can instantly come up with exceptions to this statement but still, we are conscious of the fact that we are coming up with exceptions. Government jobs are filled with the depressed, the doubtful, the lifers waiting for that sweet day of retirement. People who crave predictability but who, at the same time, dream of running away in an RV someday…

And so it is with my library branch. I love the library. I would never want it to go away. I would also never want to work there and be surrounded by the troubled souls who would then become my co-workers.

Is it really so terrible?

Despite all the hype over the past few years about young, hip librarians with tattoos and a penchant for crocheting sushi rolls, it must be terrible to work at the library. There is a woman who works at the information desk who has a 8×11  picture of her dog taped to the inner edge of the counter top, which is at eye level when she’s sitting there, dispensing information. So when she is talking to a 75-year-old man who just discovered the Internet or a woman who smells of earthy beets who wants  to find a mystery that takes place in a yarn shop, she’s not really looking at them, she’s looking at the photo of her dog.

“You are so terribly stupid and annoying,” she seems to be saying with her display of this photo. “But it doesn’t matter at all because while you are blathering on and it looks as if I’m looking in your general direction, I’m actually looking at Yo-Yo and remembering that time he was out romping in the snow.”

Maybe this is simply a necessary coping skill.

But this information clerk is not the most morose and misanthropic of the bunch. No, that title is shared among Heelga, Henny, Bob and the White Robots. Nearly all the rest of the staff, actually, except for a young woman who helped me once and actually seemed to care that a book that was supposed to be “in transit” had actually been lost for weeks and had never arrived for me to pick up. But I only saw her once before she was probably either transferred to another branch after a nervous breakdown or possibly killed by the White Robots.

The White Robots. The White Robots are a gang of aging women with white hair who work at this branch of the library. One can never be sure how many there are because they all look slightly alike – there could be only two or there could be fifteen. They are of average to slightly-below-average height, with short, white hair, sensible shoes and polyester pants. Some have glasses.

The White Robots were created in the late 1980s when Library Science was a struggling field and the jobs weren’t being filled. It was hard to make ends meet on the minimum wage paid to reshelve books. So the city created an army of female robots who could do the work. From a distance, they look comforting and reassuring.

“Here I am at the library,” one might think. “It’s so pleasant here. Look, there’s an older lady who looks just like Ms. Bartlett, my fourth grade teacher. I’m going to try to find a good novel to read.”

For a long time, the White Robots have worked out perfectly. Except there is a flaw. These Robots do not know how to handle true human interaction, something people are coming to expect even at places like a public library. In fact, it sometimes makes White Robots shut down completely. Just the other day, I went to pick up books on hold for me and a White Robot was hard at work putting books onto the hold shelf. Of course, she was working right in front of where my books were sitting. Simply walking up to the shelf and looking was not enough to deter her from her shelving duties. After all, White Robots are programmed to put books on shelves, take books off shelves and, in a pinch, check books out to people. Even letting my fingers graze the spines of the books didn’t warrant any kind of reaction.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I just need to grab a couple of books.”

My words caused the White Robot to freeze in place. She didn’t move aside or turn and smile or even offer to hand the books to me. She simply stiffened in place, face forward, as if waiting in agony for this human interaction to end. Please God, she seemed to be thinking (if White Robots are capable of thinking) let this end. Let. This. End.

The White Robots are surely a bit of a downer. But they are a party to interact with when compared to Bob.

Bob is the only male librarian. This makes him angry. It makes him think, ever so briefly, about the wrong turns his life has taken. The C’s and D’s in high school. The decision to take that trip down the Mississippi on a raft with his Uncle Wayne. The attempt at being a bartender because bartenders get laid. The community college courses that led him to jobs in computers. Getting laid off. Getting kicked out of his apartment. That half-way house. Oh, dear God.

He’s smart. He reads. He plays chess on the weekends in front of Dunn Brothers on Lake Street. He talks about stupid people at the library. Not that he has conversations with anyone. But he watches them through his enormous glasses, the ones he bought at Vision World in 1992. People who come in to get books on how to cook rice. People who come in to find out how to clip bonsai trees. Stupid children – oh, the stupid, stupid children – who try to talk to him. Children are the only ones stupid enough to try to talk to him. They don’t feel the bubble of contempt around him. They don’t recognize disdain, despair and self-hatred all rolled into one walleyed stare.


After talking to Bob, they have a better idea. They know not to go up to him while he’s shelving books. In fact, if Bob is in an aisle, it’s best to come back later. Moving up to him and his cart is like tiptoeing up to a mean dog who happens to be taking a nap in the abandoned lot. You get closer. You think maybe you can reach the book about Shel Silverstein’s years of working for Playboy Magazine but then… stare. Bite. Foam at mouth.

He has to be comforted by Heelga and Henny in the back room. They give him chunks of raw hamburger.

Heelga and Henny actually had me fooled for years. I didn’t know there were two of them until my sister let me in on the secret. They are older women, seemingly well past retirement age, with hair like cotton that is dyed red. They have eyebrows drawn on with grease pencils and the faces of plodding German house fraus. I always expect them to be wearing aprons instead of just blouses and cardigans. They have thick shoes, something designed during the Third Reich to correct clubfoot, I’m sure. One would not be surprised to be paging through a collection of Diane Arbus’s photos of deviants and marginal people and to come across a photo of Heelga and Henny.

They never work at the same time. You have no idea if you’re dealing with Heelga or Henny. Yes, it’s Heelga. Not Helga. Don’t be ridiculous.

Heelga and Henny have been ravaged by time and the difficulties of life. Henny did have a nervous breakdown, although it was in her early 20s, well before the library. She stood in the hospital, in an entirely white room, and screamed for hours. Heelga baked zucchini bread and brought it to Henny during visiting hours.

They have lived together their entire lives in various places but have occupied the same small house in South Minneapolis for the past 20 years. Heelga likes to plant petunias. Henny paints tiny creatures for display in the yard. They never talk about their parents or their brother. They go through the Walgreens flier each Sunday and plan out their purchases – tiny cans of Dinty Moore Stew (Heelga’s weakness), metal hair clips, fly swatters, face powder. Then one or the other will take the trip down a few blocks after one of their shifts and do the shopping, carefully presenting coupons.

Heelga can drive. Henny can’t. Or won’t. Not since the hospital.

Heelga and Henny don’t talk to library patrons either. But they do sometimes give a nod. Maybe a very brief “thank you” when someone remembers to place their books on the return counter with all the bar codes facing up so they don’t have to turn them over and search for it with their laser wands. Heelga once had carpal tunnel syndrome and she’s never forgotten the agony.

But they do like to watch. They do like to judge. They don’t understand anyone who wants to read Twilight or Eclipse or the novel by Ivana Trump. They don’t understand literature written after 1965. Or even after 1955, sometimes. They don’t understand people who come in to check out DVDs. They have never heard of The Sopranos except in passing. Except when that angry man came in and yelled because he got disc three when he wanted disc one.

“You can’t start with disc one!” he said.

I’m sure Heelga had to stop herself from asking, “What is a disc?” Or, if it was Henny, I’m sure she had to stop herself from asking, “Who are you? Where did you come from? Are you going to hurt me? Are you going to hurt Bob?”

From back in the stacks, in front of the short story anthologies, Bob shot lasers from his eyes.

6 thoughts on “Working From The Margins

  1. Yeah, I’m sorry to have to agree with you on the weirdness factor. I love the idea of libraries and what they stand for, and I think they’re a great resource for communities, but sometimes I feel like I’m on Candid Camera.

    A big part of the problem is personal space: everyone feels entitled to it, but few are willing to share. It’s such fun tiptoeing past people reading in the aisles with half the shelf on the floor next to them, apparently unaware that books can be checked out and read at leisure. If only there was someone who could explain how the system works, maybe sitting at a desk marked “Librarian…”

    My favorite attraction is this small, elderly woman who sits in her favorite chair by the window every day and reads in front of the Sci-Fi section. This is fine except that Sci-Fi is quite popular and this woman does not like being disturbed. Whenever someone gets close to her, trying to find a particular book, she makes a big show of rattling her reading material and clearing her throat, scaring the hapless seeker into a hasty retreat. If you’re on the sidelines it’s kind of funny to watch, but she is not someone you want to mess with up close.

  2. Chris,
    Yes, there are many elderly readers at my library branch as well. They seem to spend all day there reading magazines and newspapers and I can’t decide if this is a lifestyle to be envied or pitied.

    Was at the library yesterday and a guy came in to get his book from the hold shelf, then walked over to the Info clerk (one with photo of dog) and said, “Same day service.”

    She said, “Oh, ha ha… Really?”

    He said, “No. I put this on hold a year and a half ago.”

    She said, “No, it couldn’t have taken that long. I don’t even think that book has been out that long.”

    He said, “Oh, could you look it up and see? Could you see when i put it on hold?”

    She said, “I could try…”

    He said, “Oh, well, doesn’t really matter.”

    Then he continued on with a conversation and called her “girl,” when she is easily in her 50s.

  3. Okay, now you’re making me feel bad. If it takes your library the better part of a hamster’s lifetime to order/receive a book, clearly you must live in a third world country. And here I am complaining whenever there are more people waiting for a recent release than the county has ordered. I’m so sorry. Color me chastened and rebuked.

    Is your library computerized at least? Please tell me you’ve moved beyond the card catalog. Oh, poor Heelga and Henny; it all makes sense now.

  4. No, no, the guy was just being a prick. His “same day service” comment was because he had to wait awhile for the book, then he claimed it was “a year and a half.” When she said she would look up his actual wait time, he backed off immediately, probably realizing that she’d see he ordered it 2 months ago or something.

    Then he referred to her as “girl.” As in, “girl, you’d better get on that,” not, “You go, girl,” or “Girl, you know it’s true.”

  5. Is Bob the guy who always has to shelve the books while wearing headphones and mumbling to himself about how annoyed he is?

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