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.)

For Esmé

I remember my first day at the law library somewhat fondly.

And when I say law library, I don’t mean in an academic setting where law students frequently go to help them, you know, become lawyers.  I mean a library smack dab in the middle of a law firm where lawyers go on occasion to help them, you know, win cases; where I am but a blip in their radar, approached only when absolutely necessary, outside of their culture, an underling.  It’s not so bad.  My fellow underlings and I get along pretty well, and enough of the attorneys are themselves fairly decent human beings.

I don’t remember exactly what I wore that day, but I do know that I was dressed to impress – long-sleeve button-up tucked into slacks, loafers, white tube socks.  I remember that it was a long-sleeve shirt for this reason:

The weekend before my first day, I had embarked upon one of my bi-monthly weekend trips home to rock the Houston suburbs.  And in the fervor and excitement of discussing the commencement of this new job with my parents, my father, who himself is an attorney, gave me this advice:  “And wear a long-sleeve shirt.”  And this probably sounds strange to you, but it made perfect sense to me.  Here’s why:

Two bi-monthly weekend trips prior to this occasion, I had decided that the weather had simply become much too warm to continue to wear long-sleeve shirts around my folks in order to conceal the tattoo on my left forearm that, for the previous five months or so, I had been, let’s say, reluctant to reveal to them.  Now, there are a number of things about myself that my father takes pride in, and then there are things about myself that he accepts as fact and/or doesn’t want to think about.  And this tattoo, then and two bi-monthly weekend trips later, happened to fall in the latter category.

So I know he was holding back a little with that advice.  I know on the inside he was saying, “And, for God’s sake, Chris, please, please, please wear a long-sleeve shirt.”  Regardless of what he really said, I heeded his advice, and I wore long-sleeve button-up shirts to the law library every day for the first seven months that I worked there.  I made the switch about the time this record Austin summer heat wave began, and I haven’t looked back since.

Anyhow, my first day was something of an orientation.  My immediate boss, the law librarian, walked me through the place and showed me the locations of the volumes in the collection on all three floors of the firm.  On one of the floors she was less familiar with, she was struggling to remember the precise location of one particular section.  Amid this, one of the attorneys walking by stops and jovially inquires as to what we’re doing.  My new boss says something about trying to remember where this particular section is, to which the attorney says incredulously, “You’re the librarian!” and proceeds to slap her on the back.  Now, this was a resounding, echo-locatable, pink-handprint-inducing, yet somehow Texas-friendly type of slap.  I suddenly became terrified for my back’s future.  She grinned and bore it, but you could tell she didn’t much care for it.

And that’s what I remember about my first day.  That was my introduction to the job and to the firm.  Well, that and taking the wrong stairwell that, void of my helplessly banging on each successive door in hopes that someone was by chance near enough to hear, resulted in a twenty-four story, sweat-inducing descent to an unlocked door.  But enough about that.

Here, I would like to switch gears and fast-forward eight months to PF Chang’s Day.

My mother, who is an elementary school principal, was in town for an elementary school principals’ conference, which, for those of you who are familiar with the city of Austin, was held in the Arboretum area.  This was also the weekend of the Rot Rally, an annual event where, for some reason, the city of Austin opens up its eccentric arms to lovingly welcome every single biker in the entire country.

Before she took back off to Houston, where, as I previously mentioned, I only make bi-monthly weekend trips, we had agreed that she should at least treat me to lunch while she was in town.  We had agreed on the PF Chang’s which, too, is located in the Arboretum area, a good twenty-minute drive from the downtown building that holds the law library.  And this was a Friday – the day I work nine hours at the law library, the first day of the Rot Rally.

So I took an early lunch.  I didn’t explicitly tell my boss that I was doing so, but I think it was obvious enough.  At this point in time, just as it had been pretty much from the get-go, we didn’t really speak to one another unless it was absolutely necessary.

All said and done, and thanks in part to some poor navigational decisions on my behalf, I took about a two hour lunch break.  Off the clock, mind you, but two hours nonetheless.  When I returned, my boss was still at lunch.  Fifty or so minutes later, she was still still at lunch.  I here decide to use the restroom, a period during which she coincidentally returns.  So, presumably, as I took my post-lavatory seat at my desk, it looked to her like I had taken something like a three hour lunch break, which was only really two-thirds true.  And we only really speak to one another when it’s absolutely necessary.

To make matters worse, and I am probably fully to blame here, ten minutes or so after she had returned, a co-underling and friend of mine asked me if I wanted go out for a cigarette.  I had nothing better to do, really, so I complied.  (I know. Tell me about it.)

Upon returning ten, fifteen minutes later, I had the following email waiting for me in my inbox:

When you are away from your desk, you need to tell me where/when you are leaving and for how long. You cannot be on “the clock” for the hours that you are away from your desk.

Now, let me acquaint you with the architecture of the law library, or at least the part that’s critical to the telling of this story.  I have a desk – a cubicle, really – out in the open; I am a spectacle for everybody who walks by, and there are frequent walkers-by.  Fifteen feet behind my desk, behind my cubicle’s back, fifty-four inch high wall, is my boss’ office. Fifteen feet.

In order for my boss to express her displeasure with the way I was going about my business, she had to – had to – write this two-sentence, passive-aggressive email.  She couldn’t have waited until I got back and said (from her office, even), “Chris, can I have thirty-seven words with you in my office?”  Couldn’t.  And I’m being serious:  it is physically impossible for her, as a library director, to direct me.  She just doesn’t have it in her.  It’s a shame.

So I’m sitting there at my desk reading this email while my friend is hanging around trying to chat it up with me, completely oblivious to the fact that any of this is going on.  Once he leaves, I make a beeline for her office and try to explain by saying, you know what, my mom’s in town, I went and had lunch with her, I got caught in traffic, et cetera. And she responds with pretty much verbatim what she had written in the email.

It goes on back and forth like this for a while, and then she makes the allusion that she finds my (extremely limited) interoffice social tendencies disagreeable, concluding, and I cannot make this up, that “it’s annoying.”

I sort of just gave up after this, and accepted that you just cannot please everyone all the time.  It’s just unfortunate in my case that the only person (to my knowledge, anyway) that has any real negative sentiments towards me in the entire firm is my boss.  But, until she sends me that email that says I’m fired, I still have a fairly comfortable job there.  And I’ve never been slapped on the back, or anywhere else, for that matter.

To conclude this conversation, I did what any underling would do:  I apologized.  But I said it like this:  “I’m…sorry?”

She responded, I kid you not, in a near shout, “It’s okay!”

I retreated to my desk, back out in the open, and just sat there awhile, laughing out loud intermittently, thinking about letting her know every time I used the restroom, or got a refill of water, of clocking out for 0.0 hours.  I then used the rest of the afternoon to apply for an internship at the academic library at my alma mater, so that, upon getting it, I could promptly, if in email form, put in my two weeks’ notice at the law library.  This, I suppose, is why I needed to be at my desk.

Needless, perhaps, to say, I did not get that internship, and, for all the obvious reasons, I remain stuck at the law library. I recently applied for a GRA position at UT, but they’re still taking applications, and that position wouldn’t start until the Fall semester.

What I am more primarily, and extremely patiently, awaiting is the opportunity to rise in stature at the community library. I am stuck in a part-time position there as well, because the city’s budget is barren or focused elsewhere, and because all of these job freezes aren’t allowing any upward mobility for the persons who currently hold the jobs I desire, thus also giving me nowhere upward to move.  Again, I say, it’s a shame.  For everyone, really.

The larger point I intended to raise in writing this is concerning the direction and focus – the point – of this blahg.  And what precedes and what follows this sentence may seem paradoxical, or counterintuitive, or even hypocritical, but I will attempt to justify it.

Under no circumstance do I intend to utilize this blahg as a method to dispel, to come to terms with, or to solicit empathy for my dirty laundry.  I both despise and have fallen victim to this form of utilization of the internet before, and I just want nothing to do with it.  I don’t want this to become a gossip column, or a place to rag or take out my frustration. I don’t want my anecdotes to be a bunch of “you wouldn’t believe the asshole I had to deal with today” stories.

Yes, I deal with assholes.  So do you.  They’re everywhere.  But writing about them, at least in a non-constructivemanner – writing about them to get it off my chest – that’s just not something I want to do, and, hopefully, that’s something neither this blahg nor the forum attached to it will turn into.  I fear that it could become that, and, if it ever does, I will personally pull the plug on this entire endeavor, no regrets.

That being said, I don’t suspect many of my anecdotes will hail from my experience at the law library, or at least from my encounters with my boss there.  Clearly, I have my reasons for staying on board – mostly economic, but having unlimited access to a parking garage in the center of downtown Austin, not to mention the twenty-sixth floor balcony that overlooks it, is pretty awesome as well.  But my duties there barely resemble anything I’ve ever done while working in academic and public libraries, so I don’t think that experience is really worth mentioning.  For all of these reasons, this isn’t a job that I particularly enjoy having.

So why write about it as my first anecdote on my blahg dedicated to my personal experience as an aspiring librarian? Well, I think I’ve done so in order to contrast this, a fundamentally bad work experience, with all of my other library work experience, and to explain, perhaps solely to myself, why I shouldn’t badmouth anyone involved in those good experiences.  Does that make sense?  I’ll try to make this clearer:

I love the community library.  I love that entire families of females, aged two to seventy-two, have very outwardly obvious crushes on me.  I love that people value my opinions on the books and movies and music they’re checking out.  I love seeing how excited little kids get when I check books out to them as they watch me intently from their parent’s shoulder, and I love that they try to talk to me, even when they have a vocabulary of fewer than fifteen words.  I love how much I learn about people just by sitting behind a circulation desk and talking.  I love the diversity of the people with whom I interact.  I love the people with whom I work and the sort of dysfunctional family we have formed.  I love being told that I remind someone of somebody, and that it’s not just a good but a great thing.  And so on.  It has done wonders for my self-esteem, helped remedy my social anxiety, developed in me a genuine care for, and desire to help, this, mycommunity.  And so on.

I loved working in the library during my undergrad, and I love the community library, and it would be deceiving to suggest otherwise.  Even with one tiny blurb.  Giving the impression that my work at that library is stressful, or makes me feel negative in any way, would be doing that institution and the people it serves an injustice.  That library has made me a better person, and I love it for that.  There’s no need to focus on instances there that were disagreeable when my overall outlook is completely positive, when I’m happy to be there every single day.  That’s just petty, and unnecessary.  Difficult people come with the territory, and that’s that.  In a more perfect world, though, they wouldn’t be the territory.

I think that it is out of respect for these sentiments, as well as to stay in line with the confidentiality of libraries in general, that I have decided to keep as many aspects as I see fit anonymous, or at least ambiguous.  I have probably given you enough information that if you researched hard enough (and if you didn’t already know from my telling you firsthand), you could come up with the proper names of the law firm and community library for which I work, then show up to where I work and be able to point out some of the people I’m describing, and perhaps my full name, and where I went for my undergrad.  But I’m not making these things explicit, and, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think they really matter. I’m not trying to document a single example of a particular institution; rather, I mean to approach this more holistically, and to make my personal experience within the greater library system identifiable and relatable without singling out any particular institution.

I’m not speaking for all libraries, but perhaps, collectively, we all can.  Until next time,

With love & squalor,

(NOTE:  originally published 9th August 2009 for Indoor Sunglasses.)