Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Have you Checked the Catalog? 

I apologize for my erratic and desultory blogging, but I’ve been in Connecticut for a week. Each year I visit my aunt and cousins there for a traditional New England Thanksgiving, although my protracted celebration of gluttony and sloth would certainly be condemned by the Puritans we're supposed to be honoring. The town elders would probably sew a great big G for gluttony on my clothes. What a stern, joyless, niggardly lot they were. I’m glad that I’m descended from a later, less fanatical wave of immigrants.

The night before I left I had yet another obscene phone call, diabolically clever and drawn out. The only other librarian on duty was the children's librarian, and she was occupied upstairs trying to coax a filmstrip through an ancient projector for children’s movie night. She dreads these movie nights because the equipment is so temperamental and ancient and the events are always so poorly attended. When she tried to modernize and show tapes from the VCR a bunch of parents wailed that the movie night just wouldn’t be the same without the filmstrips. They are inexplicably, stubbornly nostalgic for these terrifyingly groovy short animated films from their childhood that only exist on filmstrip. The films are all practically dissolving and have a flickering, migraine triggering visual quality. Of course these parents never bother to attend these events, but I've found those types are always the ones who are the most vocal and who like to express their written opinions in letters to the City Librarian. My coworker thought she was off the hook when no one showed up, and while she was wheeling the projector away a man in his 40s reading the paper said without looking up from the paper, “Excuse me. I believe there is a movie night here tonight.” Since there were no children or anyone else my colleague said that she was going to cancel the program due to lack of interest. He then whipped out a library events schedule and said, “Right here it says there is a movie night scheduled; therefore, I am here for the movie.” He was the doppelganger of Toby, Harvey Pekar’s autistic coworker, with the same precise, stilted speech and single minded determination. My colleague knew reasoning with him would be futile and so she resignedly continued with movie night.

While my colleague struggled with the film, I took a reference call from a man with a vaguely European accent. He started off with questions about the availability of films by French director Eric Rohmart. He then wanted to know about ordering books of psychological case studies. After I named a few he specified that he was was particularly interested in those having to do with the psychology of relationships. His tone became warmly conversational and he complemented me on my searching skills. After disarming me with flattery (an obscene phone call red flag, I've found) he then wanted to know how strong our collection was on the field of abnormal psychology. After listening for a moment to some of our titles he returned to the subject of the psychology of interpersonal relationships, especially romantic relationships. I listed several books the library owned. He then wanted to know if we had any books about abnormal sexual psychology, and if would I read the list and describe them in as much detail as possible. There was a strange, desperate yearning tone that had crept into his voice and I finally wised up to the true purpose of this call. I lied and said that I had a line of people at the reference desk, although the library was practically deserted. He then abruptly hung up on me, which confirmed my suspicions that he was not a legitimate caller.

My ear was heated and sore, as if the caller had been tonguing me in my ear the entire ten minute conversation. Although I cursed myself for my continuing naivete and unwitting participation in these perverted phone calls, I still get fooled by the elaborate and bizarre setup. Human sexuality is confounding and I'm still learning about the strange lengths people will go to to get their freak on. The most pathetic ones I heard about were the Foxy Cancer Information Specialist's. She had people call her and ask overly detailed questions about how to conduct a testicular exam, obviously getting off.

Although most callers seem harmless, my ultimate fear is that an obscene phone caller will one day call me from a cell phone within the library, and it will be just like that old horror film When a Stranger Calls when the babysitter keeps getting these calls asking, "Have you checked the children?" She has the calls traced and then the police break in the line and say, “We’ve traced the call! The phone call is coming from within the house! Get out!” This is actually how a moron phoning a phony bomb threat was apprehended at The Main. He was using a pay phone within the library.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Could You Change the Ending?  

A mother swept in one day and demanded to know if there was a version of Charlotte’s Web with an alternate ending. She complained that the spider’s death was too sad and depressing and she didn’t want her seven year old son exposed to something so upsetting. Instead of seeing the book as a beautiful parable about the natural cycle of life and death – which, whether we like it or not, is our common destiny – she wanted to ruin the entire point of a children’s classic for her own sadly misguided purposes.
Another librarian reported that The Quitting Deal was challenged (librarian term of art meaning a patron has asked for a book to be removed from the collection) because the mother in the book was messy and there were dirty dishes in the sink.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Fresh Out of the Big House 

Today a man still wearing his prison ID bracelet inquired about getting a library card. When told that he would need a piece of government issued ID, he presented his wrist with the bracelet. Although technically it is government issued, the page explained that the form of identification needed to have his picture and address on it. He shrugged and left the library to continue the long process of adjusting to life on the outside.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

At Least the Trains Ran on Time 

Two library security guards dropped by on their rounds the other day. They looked wearier than usual and told me that they had just come from breaking up a catfight between two partially clothed women on the front steps of the main library. Before you get too titillated, the combatants were filthy bag ladies who both looked a lot like the bloated body in the bathtub of room 217 of the Overlook Hotel. As they were screaming filth and grappling with each other they tore each others clothes off until they were down to what would have been their underwear if they had been wearing any. Just the thing you want your children to see on a visit to the library.

Homeless congregate on the steps of the library because misguided Good Samaritans will drive by and hand out food and clothes to them there. Citizens trying to help the homeless use it as a centralized drop off location for food and clothes, in effect making the library an unoffical rescue street mission/soup kitchen, but with none of the proper staff or facilities. The security guard told me that he often see homeless men walking around with plates of food and trays of lasagna, which they eat and leave half eaten on the library steps. People also drop off bags of old clothes so the homeless will use the library's bathroom as a changing room. He will find filth encrusted outfits crawling with vermin shoved in the trashcans of the library.

It's not that I haven't any social conscience or feel that the homeless should be hidden from view. But outside the library they loiter, shoot up, deal drugs, fight and the library and its staff are neither equipped nor trained to deal with this. The hit and run philanthropists who hand out food can get a warm fuzzy high but in the meantime the average patron avoids the library for fear of his life and the library is left to deal with the mess. At times I feel that the main has been basically ceded to the homeless.

What is so sad it that even though I consider myself a very live and let live liberal, when I see and hear these sort of things I feel myself sliding down the repressive (but well maintained and graffiti free!) slope of fascism. Intrusive phrases like "At least the trains ran on time" pop into my head. I envision more of a Starship Troopers style fascist utopia than Mussolini's or Mayor Giuliani's. In any case, the codependent, free for all style of this city is not working.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Touch You Once, Touch You Twice 

One time I was working at another branch and heard a patron softly and rhythmically grunting by one of the bookshelves. The noises sounded painfully and forcefully abbreviated, like an aborted hiccough. As I watched him I noticed that he would touch the spine of a book on the shelf, mutter the call number, grunt, and then move to the next book and repeat the process. His behavior, although strange, seemed harmless. One of the regular librarians explained, "Oh, he does this every time he comes in. He starts at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system and works his way through each book until the very last one in the 900s. Then he will move onto the fiction section and work through it until the library closes."

Lucky for him it was a small branch. How terrible to be enslaved by such a boring and monotonous compulsion. OCD is such a dreadful but fascinating condition. David Sedaris's essay "A Plague of Tics" describes his bout with OCD when he was a young boy. Although he lived less than a mile from school, he would take well over an hour to get there because of of the elaborate sequence of rituals - tapping his shoe against his head, licking and touching objects, performing bizarre, dance like motions, circling trees - he had to perform en route to school. His OCD wasn't just limited to his walks to school, however. Whenever he rode in the car and passed particular landmarks he felt compelled to lick the windshield. This habit infuriated his father and when he leaned forward to lick the windshield his father would tap the brake so David's face slammed against the glass. Even though he knew his father was just waiting to punish him this way, the need to lick the windshield was so overpowering he couldn't resist. He claims that once he began smoking his OCD vanished. OCD seems to be caused by some brain chemical not switching on or off properly. Nicotine fiddles with brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and he credits medicating himself this way with curing him of OCD. Even though getting his face slammed into the windshield by his father made for great material, I still felt sorry for Sedaris that his father was so unsympathetic, until I went to a book signing and Sedaris signed my copy of Naked, "To -----, a young slut in Alabama." Then I thought of his face slamming against the windshield and I felt glad.

In Xenophobia, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card creates a planet of geniuses who act as the intellectual minions of an interplanetary empire. The most brilliant geniuses of this planet of geniuses are inflicted with crippling OCD, and the rituals they perform are revered and considered holy, a gift from God. It is discovered that the empire intentionally infects them with a virus that causes OCD, so that the empire can exploit their brain power without fearing that the geniuses will rebel or try to usurp control of the empire. Their OCD keeps them hobbled.

I believe everyone has a touch of OCD. Even though I know that I turned the iron off I will sometimes obsess and feel a siren call, this maddening itch, to stop what I'm doing and go make sure, even if I'm out the door. Even though I find the iron cold and unplugged, I still am rewarded with a flood of relief. Just from that little taste of the compulsion disorder makes me feel a deep sympathy for those who are really inflicted.

Suggested further reading, Emily Colas' hilarious memoir of OCD: Just Checking

Monday, November 15, 2004

More Accidental Revelations in Fiction 

I am fascinated by incidences of novelists who find the truth uncannily revealing itself in their work, and recently I described examples by writers Amy Tan and Isabel Allende. This weekend I watched The Dancer Upstairs, a movie about an unnamed Latin American country besieged by a vicious shadow terrorist organization. In the movie, dead dogs hang from lampposts with signs of nonsensical political statements scrawled on them and sticks of dynamite shoved in their throats. Child suicide bombers detonate themselves in crowds. School girls ambush and assassinate military leaders with machine guns. A mysterious, undeclared revolution seems to be underway, one without manifesto except for a vague Maoist ideology. In response to the terrorism, the country's government, already corrupt, is a hairsbreadth away from imposing martial law and unleashing right wing death squads to patrol the streets.

The movie is based on book by Nicholas Shakespeare about his experiences in Peru while visiting his diplomat parents. After witnessing a ten year old boy blow himself up in the lobby of a hotel, he became journalistically obsessed with The Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist organization ultimately responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Peruvians. He was never able to penetrate the wall of secrecy around The Shining Path (and 40 journalists were murdered trying), so he decided to write a fictionalized account of Peru under The Shining Path. Although nothing was known about the leader of the Shining Path, Shakespeare reported that for years after the bombing he was haunted by the image of a man in an upstairs room surrounded by books, the skin of his face enflamed with some painful skin condition. Shakespeare modeled the character of the head of the terrorist organization after the image of this man he invented, and gave the character psoriasis. He has the book's main character, a detective, track him down through prescriptions for his psoriasis to a dance teacher’s upstairs studio apartment. When the Shining Path's leader Abigael Guzman was caught, he was living with his lover in a house rented by a dancer. Officials had tracked Guzman by tracing the prescriptions he used for his psoriasis medication. The novel The Dancer Upstairs  was well under way when these details emerged.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Bizgirl is Bizman! And probably not even a librarian. 

In a strange case of blog transvestism, it turns out that Bizgirl, a purported colleague that I linked to and who linked to me, is a man, man. A concerned reader let me know today. The article doesn't mention whether he made the librarian part up either, but I wouldn't be surprised. I became disillusioned and started down the primrose path of deep cynicism early, when at the age of twelve I was upset and more than a little confused to discover that my favorite romance writer, Jennifer Wilde, was a 300 pound man who looked like a swarthy Michael Moore. I didn't understand how (or why) a man could so realistically create the inner life of narrator and plucky heroine Marietta Danvers, who was always getting herself kidnapped, swept away and ravished, usually with some signficant historical event as a backdrop, just like Flashman. In Love Me, Marietta, she is forced to get it on with white slavers, her master when she is an indentured servant, a pirate king, Native Americans, the French Navy, and, ultimately, her soul mate. (She forgives her soul mate - he only forced her because he was so insanely in love with her! - and they live happily ever after, until she is carried off by some other group in the sequel. Russian trappers, I believe). Her spirit and virtue, because it is always against her will, remain intact, and she is absolved from any sort of moral responsibility or trampiness. One benefit of Wilde's work is that I learned a lot of history, which was, remarkably, meticulously accurate.

I hope Bizgirl reveals his reasons for inventing Bizgirl's identity because I'm curious. I guess he doesn't owe anyone an explanation, although if I were his wife the whole situation might give me pause. The internet is rife with such fabrications, and his was fairly harmless as they go. I've always suspected that Belle Du Jour, the blog of a London call girl, was a man. Was it just for kicks? Was he practicing and gearing up to write a New Zealand style Bridget Jones? Although Bizgirl won best blog of the year in New Zealand, I thoughy the blog was really kind of innocuous and bland and didn't do much to either harm or help librarian stereotypes.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Crushing Burden of History: Iris Chang Commits Suicide at 36 

I spent Veteran’s Day brooding about Iris Chang’s suicide. I almost saw her a few months ago on her book promotion tour of The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, which I have been meaning to read. I picked up some extra hours at the library instead and I'm sorry I didn't go hear her speak. I could not bring myself to read The Rape of Nanking, her controversial and courageous history of the Japanese occupation of the city during World War II. I know my limits and that I could not bear to read about such atrocities in detail. When the Japanese invaded Nanking, they committed acts of such savagery and barbarism on the unarmed civilians that the Nazis stationed there were writing home begging Hitler to put a stop to it. Although the actual number of victims is unknown, it is believed that as many as 300,000 civilians were murdered. Children, women and the old were tortured and massacred in beheading contests, mass live burials and acts of sickening sexual sadism. These atrocities weren’t committed by a few individual soliders in the heat of battle, but in a systematic orgy of violence that lasted for months. It is theorized, and I believe, that the event was swept under the historical carpet for political reasons during the Cold War, and the Japanese have done their part since to deny the tragedy as nothing but communist propaganda. Iris Chang was personally and professionally vilified by the Japanese. I guess I have a bit of a problem with the Japanese proclaiming their status as atomic bomb victims while aggressively hushing up some of their own dark historical roles and contributions. Germany certainly doesn't. And Japan? It's high time that the comfort women were given repartions, or at the very least a public apology, before they all die off. In any case, I have untold admiration for writers of Chang's courage who bring these events to light and give survivors opportunities to bear witness.

From what I’ve read it seems that Iris Chang was a brilliant but painfully sensitive woman who tended to become too involved with and immersed in her tragic material. When she killed herself she had been interviewing POWS of the Bataan Death March for her next book. I’m certain that the collective pain of all of her interviewees and exhaustion from her ambitious work schedule contributed greatly to her suicide. What a tragedy and what a great loss, and how sad that she chose Veteran’s Day, a day honoring the veterans that she was going to give voice to in her next book, to end her life.

One of my grandmother’s childhood friends survived the Bataan Death March, just barely. She has had deep enmity for the Japanese every since. When I was considering doing the Jet program she wrote me a letter admonishing me to make sure that it wasn’t some white slavery trap. I laughed at her quaint cultural chauvinism, but a few days later I heard about an Oprah show with all of these women recruited over to Japan as show girl entertainers. Once they arrived they were forced into prostitution and held virtual prisoners. They thought they would surely be killed eventually but at the completion of their contract the Japanese men, very business like, said that they were free to go and sent them on their way.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A Journal of the Plague Year 

Flu and winter season is upon us and even my well-to-do patrons, the ones not overexposed to the elements and suffering from haphazard nutrition and pitiful hygiene, are sick. The library sounds like a TB ward. All day sniffling patrons have been handing me books or pieces of paper, and I'm certain each item is crawling with disease. I refuse to worry and have vowed to be completely fatalistic. My Purell seems as effective in warding off this pestilence as a pocket full of posies or a crucifix or the flu shot. Last year during flu season a lot of the Asian support staff began wearing SARS style surgical face masks, but my manager issued an edict against them because he felt the staff wearing them 'sent the wrong message.'

Winter weather also brings in the homeless in droves. My manager had to throw out 3 people before noon yesterday because they violated our odor policy. The first patron expelled had a putrid smell that filled the entire library, so much so that even the other homeless were complaining. When my manager asked him to leave he became belligerent and muttered threats, which, my manager told me with a sigh, he will probably make good on. My manager said that this man has an M.O. of retaliating against establishments who throw him out by leaving a bowel movement smeared on their front door, sort of like the mark of Zorro. One of a pub's hot tempered Irish dishwashers caught him in the act and came close to killing him with his fists, but this didn't deter him and as soon as he soon recovered he resumed leaving his signature fecal calling cards. The next person asked to leave, a woman who stank of dried urine and sweetly rancid decay, almost made the page shelving books near her faint. She left only after threatening to go to the mayor. The final man was a classic wino and was redolent of Night Train and vomit. Before he was sent packing he had to be awoken several times and told to put his shoes back on. One time I looked over and his head was so far back over his chair he was practically doing a back bend and his mouth was completely open. It's going to be a long winter.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Although I sometimes feel like I have fallen down the rabbit hole at my job, I have nothing on writer Maggie Dubris, an EMS/ambulance driver in 1970's New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Times Square and Harlem. Although Skels is fiction and has an eerie low grade current of magic realism running throughout it, I believe in the veracity of every single word of it. As I have often commented on my own work tales: you just can’t make this shit up. I feel a kinship with her, even though my job is not nearly as gory or dangerous, She has to care for Loretta and Punky and people of their ilk in extremis - faking seizures, bleeding out or three day drowned.

The title comes from a word that she hears on the first day of her job in Harlem, and it is a term used to by the police and city workers to describe the panhandlers and homeless who live in the subway or abandoned buildings. She is unfamiliar with the word so when she goes home that evening she looks up the word in a dictionary.

There wasn’t any actual entry for “skel.” I studied the closest thing I could find.

SKELDER v. {a cant term of obscure origin}
To beg; to live by begging, esp. by passing oneself off as a wounded or disbanded soldier

Skelder. Skel. It seemed like the word had meant the same thing in medieval times. Until it fell from use and vanished like a coin in the river, lost in the muck for three hundred years, to suddenly pop up in the precincts and ambulance garages of Harlem.

Although the subject matter is lurid, Dubris’ writing is haunting, beautiful and pensive. This excerpt is after she retrieves a body of a drowned blind guitar player, a homeless regular who is originally from Georgia.

Now I could see garbage floating in the sun’s light; cans and soggy paper, and the black of the river was just sludge, suspended in the cold, poison water. Bodies floated under the current; gangsters who had crossed the wrong men, whores too old or too sassy, and drunks like Blind Samuels, who wandered too far from home and fell in one hot summer night. His guitar was in there somewhere, I knew it. Smashed to bits by the water. All the years of sweat and flaking skin washed away...
I thought of Blind Samuels, rolling in the deep, and all of the other men down there, the toadies and the rats and the welshers, bricks tied to their feet, the current washing the tears from their sightless eyes.

When I went to Amazon to read more about Skels I noticed Amazon had paired Skels with The Hamilton Case, a book I recently finished and adored about Sri Lanka when it was the British colony Ceylon. I then noticed under its “Reader’s who Bought this book also bought…” feature the books The Return of the Dancing Master, which I just started, and Blue Blood, which I had just checked out. There is no similar theme or commonality to the books that I can recognize and I discovered each of the books in a completely different way: through order lists, patron recommendations and shelf browsing serendipity. Amazon's algorithm for reader's advisory/electronic profiling is uncannily intuitive.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

It's Official: Loretta is Unhousable 

The other day I went down to the Main for a meeting. I rarely have cause to go the Main and this was my first visit in over year. The Main abuts one of the city's most hardcore neighborhoods, one that is primarily the domain of prostitutes, residential hotel occupants, junkies and homeless. Even though the library wasn't to open for hours, there was already a crowd of them swarming around the entrance. I had to pass through a gauntlet of people squatting outside the doors or standing around next to their fleets of shopping carts. The atmosphere was festive and raucous and it kind of reminded me of Tent City at a Grateful Dead concert, especially when one of them intentionally aimed a lungful of marijuana smoke right in my face as I walked by so I could spend a good part of the meeting paranoid that I reeked to my colleagues. That area of the city is exciting to walk through. Crackheads often have these impromptu flea markets of items they have stolen or glittery objects they have collected, which they tend to do like mapgpies. They're very enterprising. The other day my cousin saw a man who had a large display of three year old Yellow Pages laid out on the sidewalk that he was trying to sell.

Speaking of street people...Loretta was evicted from her FOURTH residential hotel room and has now been officially classified incorrigible and unhousable. Our beat cop reported seeing her near the Main wheeling a shopping cart brimming with all of her earthly goods, headed slowly but inexorably toward the park.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Dead Beat Poets 

There are a bunch of losers - I mean poet artist types - who like to take up space in the local coffee shops and debate and hold forth about Art without ever getting around to creating any. Some of them try to persuade my manager to pay them to give poetry readings at this branch. I often mistake them for homeless when they wander in.

Even though he wouldn't last 5 minutes in prison, one of them, a poet and dramatist, is obsessed with penitentiaries and the lives of famous prison writers like serial rapist Eldridge "Soul on Ice" Cleaver and Jack Abbott, the author of In the Belly of the Beast. Remember Jack Abbott? He was the darling of macho NY literati like Norman Mailer. Even though Abbott wrote letters detailing his stabbing a man to death, his pen pal Norman Mailer championed him as an artist and publicized his case as a miscarriage of justice and made him a cause celebre. Due to Mailer's meddling, Abbott was unleashed on the public where he promptly stabbed some other stranger to death outside of a restaurant.

I have my own theories about why this particular poet - let's call him Gonad Hack - is obsessed with prisons and the men who are locked within them. I think he wants to be buggered, desperately, preferably by an inmate with a nickname like Black Moses or the ironically named "Tiny." For whatever reason, he just won't come to terms with it, and we all have to suffer his conflicted sexuality oozing out in these really gross ways. In the meantime he believes he is quite a devastating lady killer and he is always prowling the neighborhood and hitting on women, especially ones in service positions who are just trying to do their damn jobs and have to be cordial to the general public. He slicks his hair back and dresses in black leather from head to toe like he's Johnny Cash. When I first started working at the branch I became the unfortunate object of his creepy pursuit.

One time in a moment of weakness my manager agreed to let Gonad do a program on, what else, incarcerated writers. About two people showed up and I felt sorry for him so I went upstairs to attend it. He actually had a soothing, soporific reading voice and as he read about the horrors of life in the joint I promptly fell asleep, just like I was prone to do in college during long lectures. This really used to drive my professors batty, and Gonad took it personally as well and asked huffily after the program ended, "Did you get a good rest?"

This didn't dampen his ardor; if anything, he became more insistent. He seemed to be ubiquitous. I couldn't go anywhere in the neighborhood without running into him or even sit down at an outdoor cafe without him materializing and asking to join me. One day he was talking about how he was this semi-famous playwright and said that he would like to give me a tape of one of his performances that he both wrote and starred in. I reluctantly agreed and took it home to watch it. In the play, he does nothing but lumber around and groan incoherently while pictures of female genitalia flash behind him on a giant screen behind him in a sleazy, nauseating slide show. I started laughing, but E failed to see the humor and screamed,

"It's like he is virtually jacking off in your face!"

I thought his groans were much more constipated than ecstatic, but she ripped the tape from the VCR and almost destroyed the cassette in a fit of rage but I managed to save it and returned it to him the next day. When he asked how I liked it I curled my lip and told him that I wasn't interested in seeing any more of his 'work.'

A few days later he called to renew his books on the phone. There is an automated telephone number renewal number to which we're supposed to refer patrons. When I told him to call the number he got nastily exasperated and said that he didn't have time and demanded that I do it for him. I told him that I would do it for him this once. I looked at his record and happened to notice his age. Despite the hip persona that he affects he is really advanced in age, eligible for social security years ago. I knew he was much inappropriately older than I was, but I was truly shocked to see how much older. After shuddering in revulsion to have had someone my great-grandfather's age trying to pick me up, I smiled and said, "Oh, now, you don't worry. If you need your items renewed you can just call me at the library because I make exceptions for SENIORS who have trouble with the automated system." This really wounded his vanity and now he won't acknowledge my presence when he visits the library to try to persuade my manager to let him do another program, which is a wonderful relief.

He was rejected by one of our very attractive pages who told me that after she turned him down he wouldn't speak to her for 5 years, so I figure I will have a respite from his attention for at least a few more years.

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