"In my day," he began... and finished by strolling among the shelves, loudly proclaiming "political correctness gone mad" — presumably forgetting that in his day silence in libraries was even more of an imperative than not eating.
What is it about libraries that attracts what might, for want of a more politically correct expression, be called the different people? Visit the local public library at any time and you're likely to encounter them — the busy, elderly woman with a backpack and several carry-bags, noisily rustling the pages of magazines and never sitting down; the loud talker with his slightly unfocused gaze, addressing similarly not-quite-present friends or a patient, non-committal librarian or just everything within earshot (generally a substantial radius); the loud talker's friend who responds with less volume but a curiously definite way of speaking that has never admitted the use of contractions; or the gaunt, haunted young man with cheeks like the hips of an Indian cow and pale eyes apparently accustomed to searching for enlightenment in the subterranean dark.
Then there's the quiet, slightly sad-looking, middle-aged man with long, lank, greying hair; his trousers loose, well-worn and shiny, his old nylon windbreaker faded to an indefinite colour, his spectacles relics from the 1980s (when he wore spectacles from the 1960s) — the same man who creeps around the shelves avoiding eye contact and occasionally sitting to peer at an opened book or magazine in a manner suggesting what's being read refuses to sink in.
A diverse range, but what they all have in common is a worn-out air, like things left out in the weather too long — a jacket left behind on a fencepost at the start of winter and rediscovered in spring, or a pair of overalls salvaged from a grubby pile in the corner of a workshop then given an inadequate wash and pressed into service, resurrected for cleaning out the shed, painting the house or crawling under the car to change the oil.
It's not that all hope has gone. Not like the man I saw dragging himself along a back street in St Petersburg — I saw him and recognised inevitable and imminent death; his pallor almost there already, his eyes, although open, seeing something other than the reality I and the other living perceived. No, these library regulars live real lives, with the possibility that circumstances might change, that they might have surprisingly rich social lives, that they might belong to subcultures every bit as intriguing and fulfilling as those of the surfies, the practising petrolheads, the poets, the green activists and the folk musicians.
But those are only possibilities and the reality might be far more quietly desperate and grim. What appears to us (the supposedly normal — that slippery and indefinable concept) as oddball behaviour might simply be how they persuade themselves they do in fact lead rich and normal lives, or at least lives less grim than they appear to us. Perhaps they come to libraries not just to read, not just to escape the mould, draughts and chilling ache of wherever they call home, not just to piss in an unblocked toilet, but to see and hear other people, perhaps even to have conversations, to feel part of a larger community. In that respect they're just as normal as anyone else — maybe they’re not so different after all. Perhaps the man obsessed with political-correctness-gone-mad was, consciously or otherwise, trying to convince himself he had a role to play in society rather than just occupying space on its fringes — and isn't that what most of us would like to believe? Yet we see the strange behaviours, the apparent self-absorption, the intense focus that admits no casual intrusion, and we avoid eye contact and detour around the other side of the shelves. Better not to risk getting involved, you think. Who knows what you'd be getting yourself into if you smiled and said g'day?
Yes, it could all turn pear-shaped — but what if it didn't? Perhaps you'd get a smile in return, or maybe you'd just get the knowledge that someone felt, even for a moment, that he was no longer invisible, no longer a fringe dweller among grimy, plastic-covered books; the knowledge that someone felt, even for a moment, that she was no longer different.
1. All characters in this post are fictional (except the political-correctness-gone-mad man), but they could be real.
1. Cow and drongo at Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur, Rajasthan.
2. Book dreaming, Palmerston North public library
3. Carpark after dark (not the library)