Tuesday, October 20, 2009

People Are Strange

Tuesday, October 20, 2009,
Planet Earth

I was driving into work on York Road when I noticed, at the bus stop next to WMAR-TV, a young black man in a camouflage hoodie yelling angrily at passersby as he waved a little American flag, the kind you can get at Party City for 4th of July celebrations...at first I thought he might be one of those vendors hawking something, like the dudes that dress up as the Statue of Liberty for Liberty Tax Service or the Little Caesar guy with the sandwich board advertising specials outside the Drumcastle Shopping Center, but I couldn't figure out what he could possibly be pitching - veterans rights? This bus stop must be Soapbox Central because the very next day I saw a gruff old codger in a thread-bare fishing hat holding up home-made sign that said "CBS, ABC, NBC, and MSNBC are not journalists! Fox News, where have you been all my life?" (I can answer that; before Fox News there was Weekly World News to address the information needs of the "fairly unbalanced" lunatic fringe!)

Fox Trotters

This protest of one, this "Tea Party" minus the party, must have been moved down the street from WMAR-TV, I reckoned....anyway, I turned right at the light to go into the York Road Shopping Center to get my morning caffeine dose at Starbucks. There, a middle-aged woman with jerky, bird-like mannerisms kept snatching the half and half, pouring it into her coffee, putting the container back, then grabbing it again, adding some more, putting it back, adding some more, on and on, as if in a frenzy. This went on for several minutes, the woman building a steady rhythm as if she was working on an assembly line. Finally, fearing my coffee's was gonna turn cold by the time she finishes her OCD ritual, I asked politely, "Think I can borrow that for a minute?" Geesh!

The cream isn't rising to her top

It's OK, as I'm used to dealing with extras from Monty Python's Gumby Theater. You see, at my library gig I've met a number of wonderful patrons over the years, but I'd say that the majority, at least 75%, represent the dregs of recombinant DNA in terms of intelligence. These are the regulars who day in, day out are absolutely helpless, asking the same questions over and over, and getting the same answer.

A Gumby library regular

Like the Gumby who comes in and always asks for Smokey Robinson CDs, even though all our copies have gone "missing" (a common occurence, as classic Motown music seems to disappear almost as soon as it hits the shelves). He's in today again, treading the carpet around the music racks, looking perplexed. I've explained to him over the last several year how the filing system works; it's the same as a record store, alphabetical by artist's last name. Yet the man never comprehends this complex organzation principle which most of us learn by the time of our first roll call in school or the first time we flip through a telephone book.

"Can I help you?" I venture.

"You got any Smokey Robinson?"

"I believe they're all missing," I reply. "Did you check the rack?"

"I looked, but I can't figure out where anything is."

I explain the difficult concept that Smokey Robinson would be filed under the R's for his name, Robinson. He looks confused.

After several minutes of pointlessly searching the shelves, the catalog and the "red dot" storage CDs inventory, I report that all copies are gone. As they have been. And probably will continue to be.

Later, I try to listen to a "low-speaker" patron on the phone while a middle-aged man with a deep, grizzly voice like Wolfman Jack bellows every thought that comes into his head, non-stop. I catch staccato bursts that sounds like he's repeating, "Attitude, attitude, attitude, attitude, everywheres ATTITUDE...attitude, attitude, ATTITUDE..."

Wolfman Jack, broadcasting at the library

Cupping my hand over the phone, I address Wolfman Jack: "I'm sorry sir, I'm trying to hear this lady on the phone, can you please keep it down, it's hard to concentrate."

"Whoa!" Wolfman replies. "Dial it back! Having a hard day?"

"No, sir, but it's hard to concentrate when you're talking non-stop like that," I reply.

"I ain't talking," the man retorts. "I'm SINGING!"

"Well, um," I stumble, "Can you stop singing, then?"

"You can't tell people to stop singing," he replies.

Well, technically you can, at least in movie theaters, at plays, and, well, at the "Shhh! Quiet, please!" library. It's even in our Rules of Conduct, Rule No. 1: "Respect the rights of other library customers by: Avoiding behavior that disrupts the work of staff and customers."

"Well, singing isn't something that's customary at the library, where people want to read and do research, sir. It's just a courtesy to others," I reply, thinking to myself that's it's also a de facto part of Rousseau's "Social Contract" - think of your neighbors - that everyone who isn't a self-centered dim-wit would understand.


He mumbles some more nonsense in his grating, phlegmatic voice ("Attitude, attitude, attitude..."?) and wanders off, like a gadfly out to annoy the next member of society he encounters.

Our loss.

Sorry folks, the library is not a bus stop, not the street corner, not a barbershop, nor one's shower. It's not a place to sing out loud and proud!

Shortly after my boss came to relieve me on desk, just in the nick of time as another regular comes in. This is the ex-con dude who loves prison movies, though he dismissed the HBO sries Oz as being phony with the comment, "Real prison is WAY gayer, dude."

He should know, as he frequently regales me with tales of lockup levity, from smuggling contraband to graphic (and, needless to say, unsolicited) descriptions of prison yard gang-rapes.

His favorite prison movie was Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory, which is pretty good, except the idea that Willem Dafoe would take a weak little pretty boy like Edward Furlong under his wing without wanting to rip him a new one was just a little bit unbelievable. Unfortunately, he soon starting grossing me out with talk about gang rape scenes in prison movies (I admit this topic represented a gaping hole in my film history knowledge that has been closed, as I now know more than I ever wanted to know about the subject), like "Then this one had these Mexicans ganging up on the white guys and they tell this punk, 'We got a new whore in our cellblock now' and then they bend him over and this other dude pulls out a sword and they stick it..."

Whoa, I think I know where this one is going, I think to myself.

"Sorry, man," I interject, "I really don't need to hear the details on that, I get the idea - I'm about to take my lunch break and that's starting to turn my stomach."

I don't mention my upcoming colonoscopy, but that sword up the old wazoo image is one that haunts me for weeks to come.

Still, I'm always nice to the guy because when a patron has one of those tattooed tears under his eye, I tend to, well, not want to get on his bad side. I even let him show me his web site where he had examples of his demon and monster-inspired tattoo art. (A hobby he no doubt picked up in prison. I think to myself: never break the law if you can avoid it; I really don't want to end up in a cell with someone like this. I think I'd kill myself first.) The art wasn't bad, but it was that kind of crazy, testosterone-laden Conan the Barbarian-meets-Heavy Metal-album-art style that is so populary with America's blue-collar idiocracy.

Today he came in complaining of the heat and started disrobing in front of my boss. At one point, in stripping down to his wife-beater, he accidently took everything off and was there bare-chested as he placed a hold on The Wire with my boss. ("I didn't need to see that," she later commented.)

Con Airhead: Down to the Wire

He would return the very next day to complain about the fact that all five copies of the Wire disc he wanted had gone "missing." He spent the next five minutes coming up with unsolicited anti-theft solutions for the library; I told him that "the profession," as well as security professionals, have long examined the problem and possible solutions, but that there's only so much you can do without infringing on people's civil liberties, like putting cameras in the bathrooms. A pointless discussion, but finally I put it into terms even he could understand. "I mean," I said, "prisons have cells, guards, walls, security checks, police dogs, etc., and still people manage to escape every once in a while. Where there's a will, there's a way."

He liked the prison analogy and left.

Some days I feel like I'm in a prison. Only there's no escape.

(Naturally, if the ex-con reads this, I'm as good as dead. Which might not be so bad as long as I no longer have to be in public service.)

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