When the security officer patrols down the aisle, the man in a red cap two seats down, wakes from the slight jingle of keys and turns a page in his picture book of galaxies, open in front of him on the table, to show the officer–before he passes–that he has every right to be here at this table.
When the officer passes the man pulls out a four-inch blade and sets it in his lap. Then he unrolls a packet of tobacco and fills slits of paper, licking the edges, and making four cigarettes. He places the cigarettes in a jacket pocket. With the knife he trims his fingernails. He returns the knife to his jean pocket and the tobacco to his backpack. He leaves.
Visitors walk on marble floors to the tip-tap click of heels and boots rising toward the open ceiling. Security officers in brown and tan uniforms patrol the aisles of bums and vagrants wearing black jeans and overstuffed backpacks with the prolonged smell of body odor drifting above the shelves and computer monitors.
The library is full of men, homeless or in school. Defeated men, cold and aching. They browse and skim the books. Nothing is ever what they need. They are not here for the books and neither am I. They are here for warmth, to pass time, for safety and sleep.
I sit at the corner of a long table with an open, dusty dictionary in the middle. The man who left was sleeping upright with the book on the table of dazzling lights and explosions of colors and gas.
It’s library-quiet with coughing and clearing throats and muffled conversations and the flipping of pages, but most of that is imaginary, what I expect to hear. Instead it’s all computer keys clicking, the blast of music when someone accidentally pulls out their headphones and then the silence as they re-enter the plug.
I am here for the quiet and for the meditation and to mourn our life . We are at a funeral, the bums and the men in suits studying government files. The women behind the counters, who answer questions from us confused ones, guide the procession: “Military is that way, DVD’s are downstairs, sign up for a computer at the lobby desk.”
To the left of me are rows of books about tiling, roofing, masonry, carpentry, and trim work. The books are old and full of information all available on the computers. The books take up space one foot wide and six feet high and one hundred feet long. Both the books and the men inhabit a public space. Outside the library the information is sent as data, wirelessly and through miles of cables, as the books sink farther into uselessness and obscurity. Us men, we’ll have not made our mark, unremarkable and failures perhaps in many ways. We will turn to dust and fall asleep forever. We will disappear into the evening rain.
I’m at home in the ancient artifacts, silent unless opened, immovable in bulk, policed and directed simply. A world slipped behind the present, catching up in decades.
I come to see what we were.
For we are all stories and words: Created, Once, in a wild haste. A burst of joy.