Many years ago, when I finished my bachelor's degree and wasn't quite sure what to do next, I took a decent-paying job at a popular public library.
This library was known for its customer service approach -- a rare quality in my hometown of Montreal, where the typical customer service response from local businesses is being told to go fuck yourself while smoke is blown in your face. Needless to say, this library was a pretty busy place.
I was trained to run the audio-visual counter, which included books on tape, videos, back issues of periodicals, current issues of popular daily newspapers, and the rabidly popular computer room.
My job usually involved being asked the question "What movies do you have that are good?" by a 4'7" 103-year-old Jewish grandmother and her Filipina companion. I signed out a lot of "Pretty Woman" and "Saving Private Ryan" that summer.
There were also a few nightmare patrons, people that every co-worker I was paired with at every shift warned me about.
There was the mean old man who insisted on being the first one to read the local paper each day. HEAVEN HELP US if he walked all the way to the library from his condo across the street and had to wait to read the paper! OH MY GOD THE SUFFERING!
There was the guy in his 20s who hogged the computers every night past his booked time, getting up in my face when I reminded him it was 5 minutes to closing time to hiss threateningly, "I need the computer. It's for business," while I skeptically eyed the WWF fan sites on his screen.
There was the strange, hostile, bookish man who employed reality television-level strategy to maximize his computer time. Patrons were only allowed to sign up for an hour, but he would sign up for the next-to-last hour that could be booked in the hopes that there would be one spot left or that the next person wouldn't show up. He was ruthless in his reservation-making and completely incapable of even the most fundamental pleasantries of polite society.
There was the kindly old gentleman who either had a thing for public urination or a prostate condition, because he would regularly check out the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera for an hour and return it soaked with urine. But goddamn, was he ever polite when he brought that paper back!
And then, of course, there was the patron that I was most often warned about: the man in his 30s who signed out back issues of "Girl's Life Magazine."
If you're not familiar with this lovely publication, it calls itself the "#1 magazine for 10-15 year old girls" and features many glossy photo spreads of 10-year-old girls wearing lip gloss and trying on hair ribbons while smiling prettily into pink hand mirrors.
Library legend said that this man had had his card revoked for destroying library property. What, pray tell did he destroy? He tore a page out of an issue of "Girl's Life." He was caught. There was a scuffle. He might've thrown something at somebody. A library employee might've been shoved. The head librarian on call apparently made a controversial decision in the heat of the moment and was said to have declared (glasses askew, flushed and panting): "That's it! I'm writing a note to the board of directors!"
Apparently he made a big stink about losing his library membership and threatened to sue so they gave it back to him. I was warned about this man so much, anxiety crept in a little bit every day as I pulled into the parking lot and I would think, "I hope he doesn't come in today. I hope I don't have to meet him."
Fortunately I only encountered the "Girl's Life" man once, but it was everything I had dreaded. He showed up exactly at closing time -- 10:00pm, while I was alone at my counter. Since this was the ultimate customer service library, they didn't actually close circulation until after closing time, so I was required to serve him.
My supervisors sat at their nearby desks and looked terribly busy clicking away at their magic librarian databases. He handed me a sweaty little scrap of paper with the code for a back issue of a periodical on it. I had almost never been asked for back issues of magazines, so I roamed the dusty aisles in the basement and frantically tried to find it.
It took awhile: The aisles weren't labeled that well and I needed to ask for help. The clock was ticking. It was after 10:00 and everyone was waiting to go home. I finally found the specific back issue the man had requested (yes: "Girl's Life"), and was immediately revolted. As I carried it back upstairs, I flipped through to where a Post-It was stuck to a ripped page. The Post-It read "page ripped out by patron."
UGH! I handed it over and he did whatever he needed to do with it in the last 5 minutes of library time, while I gathered my belongings and closed up shop, worn out, disgusted and demoralized. I drove home, called my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him the whole story, and burst into tears.
I'm embarrassed that such a seemingly benign incident would upset me so much. When my co-workers warned me about him, they described his toenail polish with the same hushed, judgmental whispers as his taste for photos of 10-year-old girls. I had wondered if they were overreacting; if maybe the guy was harmless and they were letting a bit of bigotry toward men with painted toenails cloud their judgment. But then I had to meet him and I saw that he definitely wasn't harmless.
He creeped me out and left me frightened and nauseated. Despite the decent pay and the flexible hours and nice colleagues, this incident that made me cry was also a big part of why I decided to go to grad school.
If the "real world" meant being forced to be civil to alleged pedophiles while handing them photos of children, I preferred to hide out in school for a little while longer.
Suzanna is sporadically tweeting about whatever she feels like: @SuzannaIsHere.