One time I had a job at a library. That’s not actually correct, as the word “job” implies payment, and I was never paid, so . . . one time I volunteered at a library. The library had a program through which people who were unable to visit the library could sign up to have items selected and delivered to them. Someone else was to do the delivering; my job was the selection. When I signed up to volunteer, I assumed I would be selecting books for these housebound folks to read, and so I was a little peeved to discover that the program actually revolved around the library’s DVD collection.
“Wait. I’m supposed to select movies for these people? This is a library. Books . . . have these people never heard of books?”
Mr. Dougman, the elderly librarian in charge of the program, explained, “Sometimes reading gets difficult as one gets older. Movies can be soothing.”
“Still. I thought I would be selecting books. I don’t even watch movies, as a general rule. How am I supposed to select movies for these people? Haven’t these people heard of Netflix?”
He handed me what looked like a recipe box, “Just do the best you can.”
I held up the daisy-sticker covered box, “What is this?”
“The woman who ran the program before you kept records. They should make your job easier.”
“Ummm . . . can’t you just print me up a list of all the members of this program and what they have had checked out on their accounts through this service?”
Mr. Dougman was aghast, “That would be a violation of State and Federal Law!”
Vague memories of case-law covering privacy requirements flitted through my head like drunken moths, none of them drawn to the light of my enquiry. What good is law school if librarians know more than you do about law? Annoying. I covered quickly, “Of course it would be. I knew that.”
Still, something didn’t make sense, “OK, but if it’s against the law to keep records of their library usage, what exactly is in this box?”
He held up a librarian finger to his lips, “Shhhhh.”
I found an empty carrel and studied the contents of the small box. Two things became immediately apparent. First, there were only five people currently making use of this program. Second, the woman who had been keeping records of her selections for these folks had been well and truly insane.
The woman, whose name was not Erin, had used what appeared to be a color-coded system without a discernible key. Same-day entries were made in red and green and blue and black, with no indication of why she had bothered to change color ink. Additionally, there were marks beside some of the movie titles, as though not-Erin had tried to keep track of which movies had been particularly well (or poorly) received — there were stars and hearts and lightning bolts and what appeared to be tiny scrawled drawings of farm animals. Everything was captured on index cards, and there seemed to have come a point when not-Erin had been informed the world was running short on index cards, because later cards were simply covered in ink, with entries running vertically up the sides of the cards in tiny squashed cursive.
Even so, after examining four of the individually rubber-banded collections of index cards, I had enough information to make initial selections for these people, each of whom desired only one or two movies per week.
Roger liked anything war-related.
Petunia liked romances and old black & white films.
Sable liked comedies without black people in them (there was a note to this effect at the top of the first card).
Andrew liked a wide variety of movies, but had recently started on a long series of nature specials, and so selections for him at the moment were as simple as the next in the series.
I turned to the last and largest by far of the rubber-banded bundles. Perhaps 50 cards, scrawled front and back with multi-colored indecipherable drawings and tiny cursive writing overwritten upon itself sometimes three or four times . . . a summary of the viewing habits of a man named Edgar. I spread the cards across the tabletop and stared at them. The only thing I was able to glean from their indexed madness was that Edgar apparently checked out ten movies a week and had been checking out ten movies a week for almost five years.
Oh and also the suggestion from not-Erin in purple-markered letters across the entirety of one index card that one might want to SHAKE SNOWGLOBE FOR SHITSTORM!
I flipped through the cards . . . ten movies a week was 520 movies a year times five years equals more than 2500 movies checked out to Edgar.
I was pretty sure that was about the number of DVDs in the entire library collection, so I decided not to worry too much about Edgar. He obviously didn’t care too much about what was selected for him. He was more about quantity than quality.
I headed off into the DVD stacks. Roger, Petunia, and Andrew were simple. Sable was slightly more difficult, as it turned out DVD boxes did not generally indicate whether a show was safe for racist-viewing. I hit on the solution of sending her old TV-episode collections of The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, confident those were safe bets.
And then Edgar . . . I thought for a second and then just walked down the aisle and randomly pulled ten DVDs from the shelves. Done.
I wrote a short note to each of them, indicating that I had taken over for not-Erin, and asking them to be in touch if they had any thoughts concerning the DVDs I had selected for them.
And then I went home, pleased to have done my small voluntary part to make the world a better place.
When I returned the following week, the librarian handed me the recipe box, a small pink envelope, and a folded piece of paper.
I put the recipe box back down on his desk, “Is not-Erin around? Might I speak with her about the records she kept?”
He shook his head, “I’m afraid not. A sad story I am not at liberty to tell, but I don’t think we will be seeing her again.”
“Yes, well . . . have you looked in this box? Better I start from scratch, I think.”
He nodded sadly, “I understand. Not-Erin had her own ways of doing things.” He tucked the box into a drawer in his desk.
I opened the small pink envelope, which contained a happy note of welcome and gratitude from Sable as well as a smaller pink envelope addressed to Mr. Dougman. I handed the sealed envelope to him, “I’m pretty sure she wants to ask you if I am black.”
He cleared his throat to hide what might have been a giggle.
I then unfolded the piece of paper, which was a note from Edgar that read in its entirety:
Library Peeon – What kind of a name is Kris? You a woman or a queer? I served in the war and I ain’t got time for this bullshit. What you sent me this week ain’t worth a dog’s ass. Get it right. E. Bosen
Peeon? I looked up at Mr. Dougman, who had clearly already read the note, because he shook his head and apologized, “Mr. Bosen presents some difficulties, as you can see.”
I flapped Edgar’s note in the air as I thought for a moment, “Not a problem. I’m sure Edgar and I are going to be great friends.”
The librarian sighed with relief, “Good.”
I tapped my fingers on the desktop, “Hey, I saw this movie on the shelves last week . . . a documentary about gay and lesbian drag-ball culture in 1980’s New York . . . don’t suppose you know the title?”
“Paris is Burning,” he answered without hesitation, and then he looked at me curiously, “Why?”
I stood to go, “No reason.” I pointed at the tiny pink envelope he had left unopened on his desk, “As for Sable? Just tell her I’m passing as white.”
I grew to like Mr. Dougman’s giggle quite a bit.