Shelving Books

Libraries are not what you think. They are not havens. They are not sanctuaries of peace and learning.

Each morning I unlocked the book drop-off bins and wheeled the returned books into the library. Sometimes orange juice or applesauce had been spilled on a book jacket. Other times, the stench from a pile of spy thrillers gave away the old man who had read them while smoking a pipe. Once, someone poured cola inside the book drop. Another morning, razor blades. A sandwich bag of weed. A bra. A misplaced ballot. Lost family photos inserted between a novel’s pages. A picture book covered in hardened vomit or feces or both.

In the backroom, we wiped down the laminated dust jackets. We taped torn pages. We printed new labels. But sometimes the damage was so severe we had to ship an item to central processing.

By the time we opened the doors, patrons clustered outside so close to the glass that when I flipped the lock, I could make out the capillaries in their bloodshot eyes, the one white hair in a man’s eyebrow, the clump of grape jelly from breakfast at the corner of a child’s mouth.

Denny, one of my coworkers, had left behind his work as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital for what he had expected to be the peace and quiet of a public library. He was soft-spoken and gentle and well-liked by all his colleagues. Now in his sixties, he saw parallels everywhere. “The way they stand there,” he said one morning as we opened together, “it really reminds me of the addicts we treated. The bloodshot eyes, the tension, the watchfulness. They’re itching to get to those computers. They need their fix.”

I didn’t have the nerve to say that these men weren’t so much addicted to the computers as the porn that they accessed through them.

Once we let them in, people rearranged furniture, spilled coffee, tucked empty wrappers and half-eaten pastries onto bookshelves. Old men who were too lonely to sit at home shook out the morning newspapers. A mentally ill woman shouted obscenities at the empty chair across from her. Another elderly woman in a sun visor power-walked straight into the library, her portable radio blasting 1980s soft rock, and power-walked the perimeter before racing out the door. Chairs were urinated on and had to be set aside in the backroom, rendering that corner of our work area as odoriferous as a cat’s litter box.

Patrons stole headphones, computer mice, mouse pads, books, DVDs, and CDs. There was a widespread misunderstanding that paying taxes meant you owned public property as an individual when, in reality, every tax-paying resident had bought these things collectively and thus owned them collectively. Stealing headphones only guarantees that your neighbors now don’t get what they paid for, too.

Once, in what remains the most spectacular joke of my life, I stepped on feces in the children’s area. The still-warm poop squished into the carpet as well as the deep tread of my snow boots. It took me a full fifteen minutes to wash down my boot in the backroom sink, longer for my coworker Trina to treat and cordon off that section of carpet. We never figured out if it was from a dog or a toddler, but we tried to guess the possible path someone’s turd would have to take to end up on the floor. A tumble down a pant leg seemed unlikely. Ultimately, we concluded a baby girl had been sitting there in a dress when POP. Out it came. She cried, Mom or Dad picked her up, and nobody thought to look down at where she’d been.

Best guess.

Carol, another coworker in her sixties, had worked as a bank manager in the 1960s and had raised two sons as a single mom. As a result, she had a brusque take-no-prisoners approach to life and advocated at least once a week for never opening the doors. “To anyone,” she added for clarity. “No patrons. Ever. This job would be so much easier if there weren’t any people.” I always laughed, but she wasn’t exactly wrong. The public is hard on things. Furniture. Books. DVDs.

My boots.

Each other.

*          *          *

Most of us expect a place of healing to be a place of beauty. A soaring nave echoing with liturgy. A view of the ocean. A crackling fire in a forest.

But my problem was how to coexist with other people. I didn’t know how to be human. The assaults and abuse, the harassment and stalking had broken something in me, and the result was a half-feral woman who said, “I’m shelving books now” or “This needs to go here.” I did not negotiate. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t know how to take people’s feelings into consideration. It required my coworker Monica pulling me aside one day and saying, “Hey, I noticed you often just say exactly what’s going on, but I think people respond better if you ask questions and check in with them.” Gradually, I began to learn manners. I started to develop healthier communication skills.

Most difficult of all were my own feelings. Emerging from decades of trauma and abuse, I didn’t know how to manage my own behavior when someone triggered my rage or terror.

Shelving books, day after day, in the same place, with the same people in the same mess of disordered books and shattered CDs and a urine-stained chair in the backroom was exactly what I needed.

*          *          *

While I was shelving, I was alone with myself. Hours in the stacks meant that I had nothing to listen to but my own thoughts. And at 24, for the first time, I met myself.

It was a surprise. We are none of us who we think we are, who we hope we are, who we wish to become. We see ourselves slant, like looking through the surface of a lake. We never place ourselves accurately.

I thought I was a nice person, a sweet and kind person because this was what people had told me. Instead, I met a young woman so overcome with fury and terror and sorrow that she couldn’t see anything for what it was.

If a man stepped into the stacks where I was shelving, I wanted to punch him. Gradually, as the years went on, I learned to listen to that racing heartbeat and the clenched hand as hate spilled over in my brain. And I learned it wasn’t just any man I wanted to punch. It was my father. It was Top. It was Gary.

And as more years slid by and I shelved through the hatred and recognized its true target, I learned that the hatred and rage existed only to make me feel safe. Because I didn’t feel safe. I had pasted rage over my fear, like spackle over drywall. It was a veneer to hide the truth from myself: I was afraid that everything that had already happened, might happen again.

I learned the Dewey Decimal system: 150 is psychology, 635 is gardening, 636.7 is dogs, 636.8 is cats, 808 is writing craft, 811 is poetry, 910 is travel, and 973 is U.S. history. And while I memorized call numbers, I discovered that even the fear was just a shell. Knock down the wall, and there is only consciousness. The clear sky of my own mind.

For 12 years, I shelved books. For 12 years, I practiced walking meditation in the stacks without knowing that was what I was doing. I put books away—books I hated, books I loved, books I felt nothing for—so that others could read them, ruin them, steal them, love them, lose them. I had to learn to be okay with that. All of it. It was my therapy. My monastery.

It restored to me my humor and my sense of spaciousness. Men, without knowing it, became able to pass me on the street or sit next to me on a bus or stand beside me in the stacks, and I no longer wished for their deaths. I no longer believed my own freedom was linked to the destruction of those who had tried to destroy me. Trauma cramps the interior life, crowds the mind, and renders it impossible to exist here and now. Trauma locks us in. I repeated the same hatred, the same rage, the same fear because that was all I knew. And it was all I knew, because it was all I could see.

Shelving books opened my eyes. It saved me from my past because it taught me how to exist right now. Shelving books in the stacks—amid the muttered curses of the mentally ill, the shouts of angry old men, and the garbage they all left behind for me to clean up—taught me that there was nothing so special about my story. Just one life among so many, full of little slights and traumas. There is no guarantee for any of us but death. Not safety. Not vengeance. Not justice. Not even poop-free carpet. Which meant there was nothing to hold onto.

So I began to let go.

Like all library books, trauma is public. Whether it is the trauma of racism or war or misogyny or homophobia or any combination, traumatizing a person is an act of the community.

But healing is, too.

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