19 November 2009

Different people

Cow and drongo at Keoladeo Ghana NP
In the library recently, I encountered (from a distance) a man who seemed entranced with the phrase "political correctness gone mad". Having seen some young people eating in the library, he accosted a library assistant, first asking her to stop this outrage, then, because she responded by referring him to the person in charge if he wished to make a complaint, somehow reasoned this was "political correctness gone mad".
   "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, Between the shelvesor 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.
After dark

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)

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

I've spent a number of years working in libraries, and the whole cross section of humanity comes there, because they are welcome to loiter, out of the weather, with access to innumerable subjects to read, without judgement or filtering.

The older patrons no doubt miss the more rigid rules that made them feel safe.

A place to be. Not many public places like that.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Pete

A delightful piece of writing that takes me back many years to my library days in Dunedin, Levin, Hokitika, Henderson and Palmerston North.

Are libraries, people and mountains not the same for I once wrote when revisoiting Mount Cook:
People never change except their faces,
Mountains never change except their faces'
Can we add:
Libraries never change except
their people,
Books never change except their covers.

Keep up the inspirational writing.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Wonderful, Pete! Now at last I know why I love being in libraries and can loiter for hours when the mood is upon me, and I am utterly proud to admit it! And thank YOU Bob for that wonderful poem...!

Hoping the warmer weather is bring you peace contentment in the Valley, Pete. :-) ka kite

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

I read this with more than a trace of irony, as my current only access to the interweb is in the central library, where downstairs i can hear some nursery teachers singing hello to 4 year olds in dead voices that speak of intense embarrassment and being happy if someone came in with a revolver to end their suffering, whilst there are certainly a lot of old duffers in ferret-training cloth caps reading the newspapers and of course wierdos like me!

The really odd thing about this central library is that it used to be a nightclub/dance hall and somewhere down amongst the asian language books is where my parents met for the first time - only clearly there was more dancing and less reading at the time!

Emma said...

Reading this, I'm forced to admit (somewhat against my will) that I very much dread the "others" in the libraries. I grew up in a household where money meant nothing (rather conveniently, we had none) and books were sacred; and it is painful to observe the libraries being used as the last outposts of human contact. That said, I immediately chide myself: for isn't humanity more sacred than printed words on paper? And isn't our need for one another greater than our need to believe in a sanctity tied to material objects? Here, for me, lies the difference between love and legality. And much as the small person in me resents it, I appreciate being faced with yet another limit I must push past.

Thanks for the reminder, Pete.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I agree with Zhoen, libraries are a place to be, a place of refuge, for all of us.
When I lived in big cities in the states, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, the libraries were always a diverse and interesting places.
You capture that feeling, as usual, very well.

Michael said...

All it takes is one small smile...

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I think that's very true — I can't think of any other kind of public place that offers all those advantages. My sister-in-law has pointed out how shopping malls might offer some of that same sense of being among other people, but they attract — or tolerate — a much narrower range of behaviour. Besides, they're soul-less places — ear-jangling caverns reeking with the smell of McDonald's — give me a library any day.

Bob, thanks for that. If libraries have indeed changed, it seems to me it's by becoming more welcoming, and I, for one, appreciate that. Thanks for the thoughts :^)

Thanks KSG :^) Like you, I spend a lot of time in libraries, but I'm probably quite boring for observers. Still, give me time ... ;^)

Hungry pixies —really? Your parents met on the site of your library? You've given me new-found respect for the power of libraries. Actually, the local public library here is remarkably lively — the small-child entertainers seem postively enthused (and certainly seem to get a good response, judging from the resulting noise) — but, judging from the dearth of cloth caps, ferret training never really caught on in these parts (unless the noise from the small children was caused by an escaped ferret).

Cheers Emma :^) "...the last outposts of human contact" — I think that sums it up very well, and put like that it strikes me as sad that cities offer so few places with that kind of function; too few places where one can rest and yet be part of what's happening without feeling compelled to buy something. I know that feeling of being challenged, too — until I wrote that post, I hadn't realised my instinctive reaction was to avoid being noticed by those I was noticing.

Kia ora Robb. Your mention of libraries in big cities made me realise I actually have little experience of those, other than in Wellington (which by world standards is pretty small). But it's good to hear they're diverse and interesting — not unexpected, I suppose, but still reassuring.

That's it exactly, Michael. The power of a simple smile is truly astonishing.

Avus said...

I have given up on my local library. The shelves of books get less and less; the computer section gets larger; the childrens' playgroup is in the same large room; when I ask them to obtain books for me I never hear another thing.
Then, in the local paper recently, they were complaining that they were not being used enough.

pohanginapete said...

That's sad to hear, Avus. It sounds like our rail system — run down to the point it was barely functional, and the lack of patronage used to threaten line closures. Fortunately, the libraries I know here seem to be going from strength to strength. Maybe yours could look here for a good model (the staff here are great, too).

Anne-Marie said...

I've tried several times to write a meaningful response to this post and failed. So never mind meaningful. I love libraries. I love your writing. I love this post. The end.

pohanginapete said...

That's lovely, Anne-Marie. Thank you :^)

Dave Pollard said...

A young person tells us why he likes libraries so much better than school: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=999ZEf2EpHg&feature=channel_page

pohanginapete said...

Dave, that's a wonderful video; an astonishingly articulate statement that gets so much so right. Thanks for pointing it out.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

Well......someone has to break through. The library community will not appear odd or strange to the "normal" community, and the "normal" community will not appear with good values or true "political correctness" if one of them tried to communicate with the other.

Even if the situation turns "pear-shaped", it's still contact, and can develop into something better from there.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

Correction: will not appear without* good values......

pohanginapete said...

Samurai, yes, the status quo won't change while no one's prepared to risk a little discomfort. Moreover, when I hear "political correctness" mentioned, I find it hard to keep listening; the term has been abused so badly it generally does nothing more than signify that the speaker's opinions are closed to reason. In that respect it resembles the common corollary of Godwin's Law.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Lené Gary said...

Interesting post, Pete. It is so vividly written. I'm not sure I've spent enough time in libraries (sadly) to recognize these characters. I was just in ours tonight for a talk about poets including Rumi, Kenyon, Dickinson, and Kabir. There were regulars I recognized from my small town--they are at every free talk--but I think that must be different.

Hope you're doing well! :)

Lené Gary said...

I just realized that my last comment also included the word "vivid." It is truly the first word that pops to mind when I experience your work. I'll try to be more original in my compliments next time. ;)

pohanginapete said...

Lené, I'm happy for you to use "vivid" as often as you like when it refers to my work ;^)

I see regulars at the library frequently and assume I must be one myself; I like to think I'm unobtrusive but I suspect our perceptions of ourselves are utterly unreliable. But your mention of the talk about poets reminded me how good our library is in that respect — every week something's organised (often several events), and they're often "big names", too (well, big by NZ standards). While I seldom go to those events, I certainly appreciate them.

I trust your settling down for the winter — I'm looking forward to our summer :^)

Avus said...

I keep meaning to ask, Pete. How do you manage to include the large images on your blog? Blogger only allows me quite small ones which need clicking on to enlarge.

pohanginapete said...

Avus, to summarise, you need to do two things: resize your photo to the actual size at which you want it to display, and then, after uploading the photo, you have to edit the post's html. The minimum you need to do is remove the code for the image size; this immediately precedes the name of the image file and looks something like "s400" (depending on what size you selected when you uploaded the photo). If this doesn't make sense, don't worry: in the next day or two I'll post a short article about how to do this, along with a couple of other image tweaks.

Lydia said...

Ah-ha! You described the kind of person who would say the quote I have on my refrigerator. I bought this square stone 'fridge magnet at the Oregon coast in October. It has large copper letters at the bottom that say: OK. The quote ahead of the letters is: "I know I'm in my own world. It's OK, they know me here."

Love the way the cow image is used juxtaposed with your description of the gaunt man.

Seems that certain library patrons are similar everywhere. They're OK!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lydia — love that quotation :^D

vegetable said...

"Lips like... cow's hips"-nice turn of phrase.

I often wonder, having grown children, whether I don't seem oddball to them; actually I know I do. Some of that is that the world changes pretty much in a generation or so, and we all get left after a while in a kind of gellied-specimen state, speaking in ways that are strange and maybe suspect, to our juniors.

The fact that we also may hold onto different standards of behavour makes us a little odd, I suspect. For example, I hate all the loud cell phone calls on the bus, and in my day you'd never.....but the fact that nobody else says anything, the bus driver included, leads me to believe that the world has marched on.

I guess I'm not hanging out in the Library because I have Internet access, but in the future you never know. I hope someone smiles at me, and not only with compassion.

Happy New Year!


pohanginapete said...

Happy New Year to you also, Veg. :^)

I, too, struggle to understand how anyone can have a loud, private phone conversation in a public place, but perhaps, as the world becomes so much more crowded, that ability will become particularly useful — even necessary. Or, perhaps we'll die out and those who survive will be those who subconsciously tune out other people's private phone conversations.

Anyway, the world would be much duller without oddball people. If everyone thought and acted the way I do, I'm sure I'd go crazy :^)

the watercats said...

I haven't been to a library for a couple of years now and then it was our little local one which is bright, airy and smells of fabric conditioner. They have a HUGE children's section (half the library) and most of the adults section holds various forms of thrillers and suspense (not really my bag). I love libraries though.. the feeling of power they give you, which may be why it attracts the 'others'. There is something about being around books that makes you feel like anything is possible, in a much more tangible way than having access to a computer.
I try to make a point of catching the eye of the underdog and throwing a smile, I've had so many entertaining and surreal experiences as a result.. there for the grace of god go we.. :-)

Beautiful piece of writing again! cheers!

pohanginapete said...

Watercats, thanks :^) I had the chance to visit a library in another city (Napier) recently, and was impressed. Maybe we're lucky with the quality of our libraries here in Aotearoa (although it shouldn't be surprising, if I'm correct in remembering I read somewhere NZers are, on average, some of the most avid readers in the world). But it's encouraging to hear other places have good libraries too.
I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about books making you feel like anything's possible; yes, they're real, whereas computers, for all their flash ways, still find artificial.
(PS: check out the link in Dave Pollard's comment above. Brilliant.)