the legend of the poo bandit (a tragedy)

Earlier this summer, I found occasion to take leave from my fairly strict Kurt Vonnegut and otherwise pretentious-leaning seasonal reading regiment to really embrace the library geek in me and read Marilyn Johnson’s gem of a book, the cleverly titledThis Book is Overdue!  How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.

There are so many supposedly great works in the literary canon that I’ve yet to read that it is ordinarily difficult for me to, so to speak, get out of the eight-hundreds, and become so intrigued by a research-based work that I will take the time to finish it, particularly when I am reading it, quote-unquote, leisurely.  But this one was so relatable, and so informative, and gave me so many things to respond to, that I was able to pencil it in somewhere between Bluebeard and Deadeye Dick.

Yes, it was a pretty good summer for books.

Of the two-hundred and fifty-plus pages of Johnson’s complimentary words about the future and the culture of libraries, I would like to take the opportunity here to respond to one section I found particularly poignant to my personal experience: the five-page meditation at the end of Johnson’s fourth chapter, The Blog People, which she entitled The Real Poop.

She writes, “Did you ever?  I mean, did you ever think that being a librarian meant dealing with poop?”  I would like to respond to Marilyn Johnson by saying, “I suppose I should have.”

So far, I can relate to the experience of discovering poop inside of a library.  By the end of this, I’ll also be able to relate to the experience of blogging about discovering poop inside of a library.  And that’s key.  That’s what makes it real.

My contribution to The Real Poop, “The Legend of the Poo Bandit”, starts now.

It started out sort of like one of those guy walks into a bar jokes, where the punch line gets you right in the gut:  A family of four walks into the library, and my heart says, “Ouch.”

It was early April.  Ish.

A mom, a dad, a son, a daughter.  The mom’s pushing the daughter in the stroller.  The dad and the son, perhaps eleven years old, straggle in beside her.  It’s a large enough entrance for them to do so.

They all move to the beat of their own drums, but it’s like they’re playing a 78 at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute.  They’re doing thirty in a sixty-five.  They look around, and they look nowhere.  They are oblivious and they are entirely self-aware. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

The mom and dad are perfect for one another, in a way.  Individually, they take the shape of their hardships – of poor genetics and poorer choices.  The dad, the clear head of the family, is husky and low to the ground, a dazed half-smile upon his face.  The mom has a gap tooth and hair in a poof, her face made up to the likeness of an albino.  They are soul mates that should never have mated.

It’s already showing on the son, in his speech patterns, in the way he walks, and in his overall oblivious demeanor.  The daughter is yet unaffected.  On a given day, she may very well be the cutest baby you see that day.  She is screaming her head off about nothing in particular, and it is adorable.

Who knows?  Maybe she’ll be okay.

I issue the dad a library card, while the person working beside me issues the mom one.  The dad has a lot of questions about the library’s policies and collection.  Each time I’ve finished answering a question, he responds by saying, “Oh, okay,” and shoves aside some room in the recesses of his brain, on the chance that he may never have to ask that question again.  I give him that musty spiel I give every new member but somehow still can’t get just right, about how his first check out will be limited to five items (“Oh, okay.”), that every check out after that will have a limit of fifteen items (“Oh, okay.”), and that there is a limit of five of each type with our media items (“Oh, okay.”).

“And where are the movies?” the dad asks me.

I point in his direction and say something like, “Right behind you.”

He says “Oh, okay,” and he thanks me, and the family meanders their way to the DVD section of the library.

And this is generally how it would work for the first month or so:  the family would walk, stroll, and straggle into the library, return the five DVDs they’d checked out on one of their cards, find five more, check them out, and leave.  The daughter would sit in her stroller and scream her little head off.  The son would roam about, a potential disaster waiting to happen, somehow managing leave the library unscathed.

That is, until he scathed the library.

It’s the same scene.  Mid-May.  Seven forty-five.  Ish.  There are three of us working that evening.  What is it, a Wednesday?  The son makes it perfectly clear that he’s had a couple of Red Bulls or something, and he doesn’t want to be at the library, and he’s going to entertain himself in the meantime to the best of his ability.

His first stop is at one of the public computers.  He doesn’t log onto it.  He doesn’t want to play games online or test out the youth computers’ filter.  No, he takes solace in simply banging on the keyboard, over and over again.  And that keeps him busy for a while, until my colleague asks him to kindly stop banging on the keyboard.  He gets up and searches for another source of entertainment.

Meanwhile, I’ve been scheduled to shelve for the last of the library’s operating hours, and when the time comes, I go about doing so.  As I’m shelving in the juvenile nonfiction section, in the darkest corner of the library, the son walks up to me, a handful of small pieces of paper in one hand, a book on the Titanic in the other.  And with his thick, I guess, Cajunaccent, he asks, “You got study rooms?”

And I say, “Yeah, we’ve got study rooms.”

He does not say, “Oh, okay.”  Instead, he appears to reflect a moment, and then he asks me, “Can you do anything in a study room?”

And I say, “Yeah – well, anything within reason.”

Then, because of the accent, I guess – or maybe because I was trying to give this kid the benefit of the doubt, trying to prove that I didn’t think he was some destructive, illiterate basket case, that maybe he was just a misunderstood creative type, weighing whether to read a book about the Titanic or do some makeshift arts & crafts – I think he asks me, “Can you color in a study room?”  What he really asked me was, “Can you cut in a study room?”

But no matter, because I answer by saying, “Not the books.”  He could do whatever he wanted with the small pieces of paper, for all I cared.  Well, anything within reason.

Once I have realized that he is saying cut, and I get it across that we can lend him neither colors nor scissors, and he asks, “Because of office supply?” one more time, and I say, “Right,” he disappears, and I continue shelving.

The closing announcement is made.  The family has checked out their DVDs and left.  Now, and only now, does the thirty-something guy who teaches chess for a living – exclusively, as far as I can tell, inside our library study rooms – and still lives with his parents, and has his father – whose breath always smells like catfood, and who insists on sharing a “musing” with me every time he sees me about how much he likes World War II books, or how much better his library etiquette is than people who talk on their cell phones or who don’t bring their items back on time or who don’t put things in the right place, or about Longhorn football because I must love Longhorn football – pick him up when the lessons are over, comes up to the desk and informs us that someone had been pretty rowdy in the study room next door, and that hethought that person had left a mess in the study room, but that we should go check it out ourselves to be sure.

(For privacy’s sake, and with all due respect, I will heretofore refer to my two colleagues that evening as Audrey and Erica, even though these are not their actual names.  Audrey will be playing the part of my fellow part-time colleague that evening, and Erica will play the part of that evening’s person-in-charge.  Action.)

Audrey goes and takes a look at the study room in question.  She reports to Erica that there is a bit of a situation. Apparently, whoever (and you know who it was!) was in that study room had thrown small pieces of paper all over the place, torn up a book, and —-wait for it—-wait for it—shat in the study room.

We also find some of the – as Erica will put it, loudly and filled with disgust, on numerous occasions in the next fifteen minutes or so – “human feces” (and I’m assuming this stool was from the original study room sitting) in the middle of the library, next to one of the floor outlets, whose cover had been completely removed and tossed aside.

Now, my theory is that this kid (innocent until proven guilty, of course), amid his preoccupation with shredding books and otherwise throwing paper confetti-style into the air (imagining mine), had begun to realize the repercussions of what he had done – that, hey, it smells like shit in here.

Consequently, he began transferring the poop out of the study room in hopes of hiding it inside the floor outlet.  Only, something kept him from making it all the way to the floor outlet, and from making more than one trip. Perhaps his parents had summoned him to leave mid-transfer.  Perhaps he exchanged glances with another patron, dropped it, and went and told his parents that it was time to go.

Did he use a vessel other than his hand to move it?  Did he use the floor outlet cover?

My larger concern is how he had managed to do this without anyone noticing – without catching wind of – any part of what he was doing.  Me – particularly because I was in the stacks, my colleagues, library patrons on their laptops in the middle of the library.  Nobody.

So we’re standing around, disgusted, deciding whether to leave it to the janitorial staff to deal with it in the morning, or whether to do the more humanist thing (after all, humans are descended from primates) and clean it up ourselves.  And Audrey says, out loud, mind you, “I mean, it looks like a brownie.  Maybe it’s just a brownie.”

Yeah.  It’s a brownie.  You go pick it up, then. Out loud, I say something like, “Feel free to go find out.”

Erica puts it a little better.  “Let’s not be delusional,” she says.

So anyway, that was an ordeal.  We threw a lot of shit away.  There are more details, but what is this, a story about poop?

A few days later, call it Saturday, the family returns to the library.  They are good patrons.  At this point, we’re still lacking any real concrete evidence of who the, as he was later deemed, “poo bandit” was.  We hadn’t taken the stool to any poo labs or anything.

It’s the same three people working – Audrey and Erica and myself.  We have all taken special note of the son’s presence in the library.  A couple of minutes into their stay, Audrey decides it will ease her mind to take a lap, and to see if this kid’s up to any mischief.  Sure enough, Audrey finds him in the juvenile nonfiction section, standing on top of this floor rocking chair we (used to) have, just, peeing.

We call the cops, one of the cops asks the kid, “Are you aware that the library is not a bathroom?” yadda yadda yadda, he’s not welcome to the library anymore.

The rest of the family of four will still straggle in on occasion, though obviously, and necessarily, less frequently.  Most of the time it’s just the dad.  And he’s a good enough guy.  But I still feel sorry for him, and he knows it.  To make matters worse, he’ll have to suffer the humiliation of being the father of the kid who pooped and subsequently peed inside of a public library, for as long as he keeps coming to the library and someone who works there remembers that time that kid pooped in the library.

On their first library trip after the banishment, just a few days afterwards, the dad came inside while the mom, the daughter, and the son waited outside.  Through a window in the children’s section, I could see the son straggling around across the street in the church parking lot, throwing a frisbee as far up into the air as he possibly could, over and over again.  At one point, the dad walked over to the window, and looked out at him with his hands on his hips.  And he stayed that way for a good minute.  I wonder what he was thinking.

That poor kid.  And that poor baby.

It should go without saying that this incident has deeply affected me both psychologically and existentially.  For you, which would be easier on the mind:  to think of it as an isolated incident, thus tainting the library from that point forward, or to just think that there’s human feces on everything, and that it’s no big deal?  It’s not so easy to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

But yeah.  Poop.

What I’m really trying to say is, give This Book is Overdue! a read, because Marilyn Johnson likes plays on words, and because she wrote a meaningful book about libraries that really makes you think.  But read Kurt Vonnegut, too.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)
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take the world apart, figure out how it works (a modest proposal)

I am what one might call, if they liked the word as much as I do, a worrywart.

One of my favorite things to worry about of late – in between worrying when I’m going to get a job, or even an interview for a job, that is better than the one that I’ve had the last two years, and whether there is something seriously wrong with my digestive system (due to a deficiency of iron, or vitamin, or calcium, or potassium, or fiber, or genetics), and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher, and whether I have offended anyone, anywhere, in any situation, in my entire life – has been whether we Americans (disambiguation:  U.S.) are ever going to pull ourselves out of this god-forsaken recession, and, subsequently, what is going to happen to us if and when we don’t, and that Sarah Palin really has a chance of becoming president in two years, and that I won’t like living in Canada, either, because snow.

It makes sense to me why we’ll never get out of this recession.  In the post-war boom, we created a monster.  Today, we call it “consumer culture”.  We were so happy to be in peacetime and have money to spend that nobody stopped to worry about what would happen when we ran out of money to spend again.

And we made babies.  Lots of ‘em.  Cause why not?

Ten years into the boom, the government taught us to be afraid of the Communists, and we responded by becoming even bigger Capitalist pigs just to show those Commies who was boss, that we could have as large of properties as we wanted, wherever we damn well pleased, and that it was ours, all ours.

Shopping malls and chain stores sprung up, and we filled them with people who needed jobs, and they sold us crap we didn’t need.  And we built neighborhoods around these shopping malls and chain stores, and we surrounded ourselves with their crap, and we called it culture.

And we were scared, and we were sad, and we were bored, but we were happy.

I was born into one of those neighborhoods.  I only go back for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I used to have so many friends there.

People are born into these types of neighborhoods all of the time.  So are their future friends and spouses, and all kinds of people who will be content to live there for the rest of their lives, because they were popular in high school or whatever, and because Applebee’s isn’t that bad, and because Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t that bad.  Here, as elsewhere, sixty-something years later, the consumer culture lives on.

The problem this country has, being what it is, and trying to recover from the state it is in, is that we have to spend our way out of the recession.  To paraphrase a proverb, money makes the United States of America go round.

At the individual level, it makes perfect sense, in an economic crunch, to become more frugal with your earnings, and to surround yourself with less crap.  Personally, I support this mode of living, no matter the income, no matter the economy. Maybe that’s because crap doesn’t make me happy (see also:  paragraph two).

The problem is, as a consumer culture increasingly practices frugality, the number of employees needed to sell us crap, and the number of stores needed to sell us crap, and the number of malls needed to sell us crap, becomes fewer. Enough people need to continue buying crap so that the people who are selling us crap can keep their jobs.

Crap.

Recently, my library’s Friends group implemented a full-time used bookstore into the library, comprising of books that had been donated to the library, but were not in good enough shape to be incorporated into circulation.  It is an experiment in fundraising with which I have very few arguments.  But here they are:

These books are sold completely on the honor system.  Presumably, patrons abide by a sign sitting atop a shelf that tells them each book type’s price, and they put the correct amount of money into a coin box sitting on a different shelf, and they go on their merry ways, and we don’t ask any questions.  The store sits in a blind spot of an alcove, immediately behind the circulation desk.

My doubt of uniform bookstore patron honesty notwithstanding (which isn’t too far removed from my doubt of uniformlibrary patron honesty), I think it is a good idea, and that it will prove successful in the long run.  It’s a good way to utilize donations.  Prior to the bookstore, the donated books that did not make it into circulation were sorted, boxed up, and put into storage, and weren’t thought about again until the semiannual book sale.  While the book sales were, and are, a hit, they were still only semiannual.  A perpetual book sale means a perpetual, albeit modest, source of funds being raised solely towards the well being of the library.  If this hurts the semiannual book sales, it will be but marginally, and the difference should be more than made up for by the funds from the perpetual sale.

So, how does this get us out of the recession?  It doesn’t.  Despite the notion that libraries may very well be the new cupcake, and despite my own personal awareness, as an aspiring librarian, of both the shifting dynamic and immense staying power of libraries, there will always be folks who question their importance, who think city governments are just wasting their tax dollars.  And anyway, an increased dependency on libraries amid an economic crisis causes the same dilemma as before:  the more people utilize the resources of a library – which, by the way, is often chock-full of music and movies, new releases and classics – the fewer people we will need to sell us those resources at retail price.

So how do we practice frugality without further hurting a hurt economy?  I would like to propose the following:  Instead of bringing consumer culture to libraries, what if we brought libraries to consumer culture?

Take, for instance, a store like, oh I don’t know, Barnes & Noble.  What if Barnes & Noble, while still primarily, and even overwhelmingly, a bookstore, introduced a member-based rental system and, subsequently, a used bookstore within that bookstore?

Barnes & Noble already offers a membership service, where people who become members are offered incentives for using a Barnes & Noble-exclusive credit card.  What if material rental was one of those incentives?  What if that credit card doubled as a library card?

Think about it.  Its implementation wouldn’t be all that difficult.

To begin, you would have a bookstore, like Barnes & Noble, filled with nothing but new books.  You put up some signs, send out some emails, set up some Facebook events, get folks to fill out some sort of application, yadda yadda yadda, you have members who begin to have the option of using the facility as a library.

By having a two-in-one library/credit card, there is a guarantee that the material will either be paid for or returned.  If an item that’s been rented out hasn’t been returned in an acceptable condition after the allotted amount of rental time, a late fee could begin to accumulate until it is returned, again, in an acceptable condition, wherein that fee would be charged to the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  Once the item is a certain number of days late, the patron could automatically be charged for the retail price of the material on the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  (Why don’t libraries do this?  Do libraries do this?)

Assuming at least some members utilize the rental privilege appropriately, there will be items coming back that are used. Slap a used price tag on those babies and return them to the collection, where they too can either be rented or bought. Hey, presto, you’ve got yourself a bookstore/library on your hands.

Some folks may prefer to rent used items because there would be less money at stake should they decide to keep them.  Incidentally, a used bookstore like Half-Price Books could easily introduce a similar service, and it would be awesome.  But Half-Price Books isn’t the problem.  They get it.  It’s the folks who insist on selling us shiny new things that are the problem.

I’m no computer scientist or anything, but it seems like an automation system that can differentiate rentals from purchases isn’t that tough of a program to write.  Anyone remember Blockbuster Video?

I’ll leave it to the store to write this, as well as to decide how many items a member may rent at a time, how long and which items are allowed to be rented, whether there is a rental fee, and how much the per item daily late fee will be.  But may my made up answers for my imaginary bookstore/library (called Barnes & Noble & Grawlsy) serve as suggestions: four; everything uniformly checks out for seventeen days; no; eighty-four cents.  Why not?

Obviously, a number of hoops would need to be jumped through to get there – namely, convincing a successful pan-American conglomerate to reconstruct their business plan for no particular reason other than that it might help save the American economy in the long run.  And I can see why publishing companies may want to protest.  But I think it’s a possibility, and that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that it may even help both sides net even more of a profit.

By putting materials in members’ homes before actually having to buy them, it offers choice, and in turn what one may call, if they liked the phrase as much as I do, the illusion of frugality.  At the same time, it offers a greater range of people an incentive to become members, and a greater rationale for returning, and with greater frequency.

This type of rental system, that uses the library (and the used bookstore within the library) as a prototype, and that introduces thrift and frugality into mainstream consumer culture, could hypothetically be implemented into all kinds of retail stores.  The line from library to bookstore was simply the easiest line to draw.

It’s too bad ideas don’t pay the rent, because I think this one is worth well over five hundred and eighty American dollars. So I’ll sit around in the dark, with the thermostat hovering around eighty, because, really, who needs to wear clothes in their own apartment, and worry about how this is received on the Internet, which will inevitably be, “Hardly at all,” and whether this was even a decent idea in the first place, and why I wasted so much time thinking about it when I could have been applying for jobs that I won’t get, and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher.

Cheers.

(Epilogue:)

The day after I had initially finished writing this essay, I found this article about the fall and subsequent sale of Barnes & Noble, glaring at me from the Yahoo! homepage.  On numerous occasions in the last couple of weeks – and partially due, I’m sure, to the sizeable amount of LOST re-watching that has occurred in my private life of late – I have considered that Eko/Lockean debate over whether I am mistaking coincidence for fate, or whether I am mistaking fate for coincidence. Either way, I’ve decided that this is about as much effort as I am going to put into it.  I’ve got better stuff to do than save Barnes & Noble.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)