Before I became a librarian, I just assumed that people came into the library, got their materials, and went home. It wasn’t until I was on the job that I learned that for many people the library is where they hang out each and every day. They bring their laptops to take advantage of our wi-fi. They have their favorite chairs where they while away the day reading. They would be lost on the streets if the library weren’t here.
I’ve gotten to know most of my regulars. Some of them I know just by sight, and I wave when they come in. Some come seek me out when I’m on the reference desk for long conversations. As a librarian, I’m part counselor, part priest, part bartender. (I like the bartender part. I just wish we were allowed a wet bar.)
Yesterday I found out that one of my regulars passed away.
Like many of my regulars, he was effectively homeless, living out of his car. Alex was a Russian emigre, who at one point in his life was a car designer. (Or at least had pretensions of being one. One can never know how much of a person’s history is factual, and how much is fabrication and wishing.) He did publish a book, which I have on my desk, signed by him.
Although he parked in our parking lot every day, he had stopped coming into the library. For a while he had vanished, and when he returned he was a changed man. He’d had a heart attack, had lost 60-70 pounds, looked like death was stalking him, just waiting for its prey to fall into its clutches. But he was as always gracious, polite, happy to see me and talk to me. A couple of times I had loaned him a twenty, and he had always promptly paid me back. (I know, we’re not supposed to get that close to our patrons. But I usually choose humanity over protocol.) He had stopped coming into the library because his card was suspended, a large unpaid fine on it. But, as long as he had a place to park his car, he was happy.
He died in his car, in a supermarket parking lot where he would sleep for the night. He was writing something, and the final heart attack took him. He had family, as they came to collect his belongings from his car. From my informants, his son wept for his father. I could be churlish and ask: Why didn’t you take him in? But what I know of Alex and what his family knew of him could very well be different things. One presents different masks to different people, to achieve the desired outcome. And perhaps there was no mask for his family, and the reality was too much for them.
I’ve had waves of people come and go. Regulars with whom I was friendly at the beginning of my tenure here have drifted away, hopefully on to better things. Others have replaced them. And they in turn will be replaced. The library, like life, passes in its phases, and holding back the tide is as futile for me as it was for Canute. (Of course, Canute carried out his little experiment to show that he was merely mortal, at God’s mercy as much as the lowliest serf.) My job is to treat everyone, as much as I can, with the full measure of human feeling, withholding judgment, offering comfort, being, if needed, an ear to chew. And to note how life passes, how people pass, how there is a providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If there is another world, Alex may have found a place of peace, better than the one he lived in here. And I will keep looking at the door, ready to welcome the next person who walks through it.