When I was in graduate school in early 2000, I was a page and then a circulation worker at the local library. I loved that job. Being surrounded by the smell of books was euphoric for me. One of my favorite tasks was to shelve the fiction because it was upstairs, in an isolated part of the library, and I could inhale that musty, comforting scent in solitude.
An unexpected aspect of working at the library was all the different types of people I encountered. I grew up fairly sheltered in a close-knit Cajun community in south Louisiana.
At the library there were the regulars: folks who came in day in and day out, sat in the same spot and always had a book on the wait list; and, then there were the families who came in with book bags in tow. They usually spent copious amounts of time at the reference desk, barraging our reference librarians with question after question about the conquests of Ancient Rome or the origin of penicillin. And, the college students, who like myself needed to soak up the newly, much needed, precious internet and scour the reference shelves, since, at least at that time, the library at our university was lacking.
And, then there were the homeless people who congregated for as long as one of our police officers would let them. We had two on a rotating shift. One young and one old. The younger one seemed to be more relaxed with the homeless folks, allowing them refuge as long as they didn’t overtly bother anyone else. But, the older cop; he had less patience and would frequently ask people to leave. I was torn. I was aware that some of the patrons felt uncomfortable with homeless people hanging about, and I was also pretty certain that some of them were responsible for the liquor bottles we occasionally found in the restroom trash can. But, I also had too soft a heart at that time and was always a little disgruntled when the Sargent or James would oust someone.
This one day I was shelving paperback romances in the main area of the library in a far off corner. I’m shelving the books: Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsey, Danielle Steele. Every few books, I would stop and read the back cover to try to determine if it was worth reading in lieu of my Master’s studies. Then, I would get back to shelving; maybe sneak a sniff from the occasional spine. As I was shelving the books, I could hear voices coming from my right. People talking out of turn at the library happened often, so I glanced out of the corner of my eye not too concerned. There was a woman, disheveled and muttering to herself, sitting on one of the cushy arm chairs we had back by the paperbacks.
I don’t go to the library anymore. I’ve found that with free Wi-Fi far and wide and e-readers, that the need to go has all but diminished. While I still cling to my many book cases loaded with books, I rarely pick up an actual book anymore.
These days I go to a coffee shop to do what I used to do at the library. In addition to space and a restroom and Wi-Fi, they also have food and coffee! And, more days than not, you can find me in a coffee shop near my kids’ schools. My favorite one is equidistant between their respective schools. And, I sit there to do my writing and research for my consulting job.
And, just like the people I frequently saw in the library when I was in late college and grad school, I see the same types of folks at the coffee shop. Regulars with bustling schedules, middle schoolers with backpacks, families doing homework, and many homeless people. They too have shifted from going to the library to the coffee shop.
When I first moved to DC in late 2005, one of my main concerns was how to interact with the homeless. Where I come from, there aren’t many homeless people. My home community is very small and when someone is in dire straits like a scene from a depression era political poster, many step in to help, whether it be one of our two churches or caring families throughout the community. So, the extent of my experience with homeless people was the time I had spent working at the library during college.
Additionally, I have some social anxiety, and I am terrible at saying ‘no.’ And so, my concern was always, how do I say ‘no’? There is a person in need in front of me and despite how I was raised, I’m supposed to say no. I was told this upon moving to the city; don’t give to the homeless; it is better for them if you don’t.
Over the last nine years, I have gotten over much of my anxiety about being approached by homeless folks, and I have had quite a few run-ins as I walk the city a great deal. I’ve been in situations where I have had people come up to me and grab my shoulder and belligerently ask for money and I’ve been called racial slurs and epithets on my walk to work when I taught at Howard University. Each of these instances has contributed to my developing a thicker skin. And, now my anxiety has been largely replaced with apathy as I adopted the philosophy of so many around me. Too hurried to stop and acknowledge and too haughty to listen without judgment.
Yesterday, I was having a slow writing day with a day full of conference calls and resulting action items. In the late afternoon, I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop waiting for my 7th grader to meet me after school. A gentleman came in and sat kitty corner to my table. He looked tired, weary as he unpacked his paper bag that had a watered down soda and a newspaper in it. He then leaned over and asked, “Miss, can you please give me some money, so I can get something to eat?” I looked him in the eye as I have many over the years and said, “No, sir. I’m sorry.” He thanked me and sat back; his quietude resonating with me.
We sat there for another thirty minutes; he reading his paper; I writing work emails.
I don’t know why, but when my daughter came in and asked for a bagel, I gave her my debit card and said, “Sure, order two- on separate plates.” When she came back with the bagels, I offered one to the gentleman sitting next to me. He thanked me quietly and accepted the food.
I don’t know if that was the right thing to do; perhaps a week from now, I won’t be able to go back to my favorite coffee spot because he will ask again and again, perhaps I will never see him again. But, something in me was touched, and I felt compelled to do something nice for someone else.
Recently, I’ve been, as many Americans have been, bombarded by images of violence as we embark on yet another war and our country’s leaders put billions of dollars into this effort in addition to saving the lives of others not here but in other countries. And, like other DMV residents, I have seen on the local news the troubling acts of mothers with mental illness harm their own children as a result.
Due to recent media coverage, it is coming to light that mental illness is a contributor to violence, and it has been known for a long time that mental illness is a contributor to homelessness.
And so, yesterday when I saw the man’s gentle quietude, I was taken back to that day almost 15 years ago when I watched a woman who probably had schizophrenia arrested and escorted out of the library in handcuffs.
With the image firmly in my mind, congruent with so many from local and national news- the one year anniversary of the Navy yard shooting- the 13 year anniversary of 9/11- children in the area suspected to be killed by their mother, I just wanted to do something nice and decent for someone who couldn’t do it on their own. And, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but consider that no matter what his troubles are; he is also someone’s son, perhaps someone’s father or grandfather, perhaps a brother. And, I thought about my own parents, children and siblings and what I would want someone to do for them.