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.)