I spent the first 15 years of my professional career in a medium-sized public library in a town in rural Georgia. During the last three years, I was the library director. Public libraries by their very nature are institutions serving an amazingly diverse audience, a cross-section of the local population. My tenure as a librarian was long before Amazon released the first Kindle, and although recorded books were available, most people in our community were still reading physical books. Our patrons ranged from the poor and homeless to some of the wealthiest people in the area. Our doors were open to people who could barely read, and I am excluding pre-school children here. We also welcomed professors with advanced degrees who were on the faculty at the local liberal arts college. Our children’s programs attracted mothers bringing infants who would have rather chewed on a book than look at the pictures, but we also had regular patrons who were approaching the century mark.
Public libraries have always been used for a whole host of activities that are not strictly reading, and our library was no exception: writing, math tutoring, drawing or sketching, chess matches, napping, restroom use (including makeshift bathing or changing clothes), professional meetings, private meetings, and very private meetings. Another common use for the library was as a holding station for after-school children who “hung out” until their parents picked them up after getting off work. No matter how we tried to convince parents that the public library wasn’t a safe or appropriate place for unsupervised children, our building was too conveniently located downtown next to a prep school for parents to pass up what was essentially free, if passive, baby-sitting service. Considering some of the characters who walked through the doors, the public library was only marginally safer than a bus station. Many of these young students were not mature enough to handle temporary independence and would not spend their time in the library working on school assignments or even reading for pleasure. They were bored and restless and often noisy or even destructive.
When I first started at the library, we had a retired elementary-school teacher working part-time doing some clerical duties and filing about 2-3 days a week. She usually worked in the afternoons when the school children gathered around the entrance and annoyingly traveled in and out of the building. This woman was in her mid-seventies, about five feet tall, and thin as a stick pretzel. But, she had an incredible sense of presence that was hard to ignore. I remember one day a large group of students was hovering just outside the library entrance, and several of us on the staff were standing behind the circulation desk grumbling and complaining about how unruly these children were and how we wished they would find someplace else to waste time. In short, we were a bunch of cowards not willing to confront the little hellions. Our retired teacher quietly walked around the desk, made her way to the entrance, and walked out the door and right into the middle of the rascals. We watched in jaw-dropping respect as, one by one, the children picked up their book bags and walked in the library to sit down at a table or left the property altogether. After the group was completely dispersed, she walked back into the building and to the circulation desk. I asked her, “What in the world just happened?” She turned her head nonchalantly toward me and softly said, “We had prayer meeting.”
Some of the funniest, most outrageous moments I have ever witnessed happened at this library. For instance, there was the time when a retired college professor wearing a pair of shorts walked out of the restroom, and as he made his way across the reference section, my boss and I noticed that a pair of boxers peaked out of the bottom of one of the legs of his pants until they finally escaped and fell to the floor behind him. He never noticed it. We had to dash back to the break room suppressing screams of laughter. He was among our most affable patrons. Others were not so adorable, like the old cuss who lived at the veterans home in the county who apparently had plenty of money and believed his wealth came with certain privileges, including breaking library policies. He was deaf as a stone and was constantly adjusting his hearing aids while poring over the Wall Street Journal in our leisure-reading section. He never wanted to leave at closing time. We had to almost push him out the door, and he usually cussed at us under his breath as he exited the building. One day near closing time, I walked back to where he was seated and mouthed unrecognizable words to him. He adjusted his hearing aid up. I did this several times, and each time he cranked up his hearing aid until I could hear it emitting a high-pitched squeal. Then, I moved in closer to him and shouted “WE’RE CLOSING. TIME FOR YOU TO LEAVE!” It almost blew him out of the chair. I’m not above juvenile pranks against someone so deserving as that old fart was.
We had another faithful patron who lived at the VA home. He flew planes in World War II and was stationed at some of the sites where nuclear weapons were tested. The poor guy had to have skin cancers removed from his face several times a year. Some of the best dirty jokes I ever heard came from this man, who once told me that he was almost kicked out of the veterans facility because he refused to clean his room. Although he ultimately won that fight, I can’t imagine the condition of his room! We had some real characters who were avid readers, like the woman in her late seventies who came in every week and asked if we had gotten any new “heavy breathers,” her moniker for romance novels with explicit sex scenes. Or, the grumpy, wrinkled woman with wild eyes who devoured murder mysteries like chocolate. I eventually realized that she wasn’t really mean at all but just liked projecting that persona. I enjoyed talking with her when she made her weekly visits. Of course, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was famous in the community for having murdered her abusive husband, a crime for which she was never indicted or convicted.
I cannot finish without mentioning the young couple who inspired this post in the first place. I’m not sure they ever checked out a book, nor even took the time to read anything from our shelves. They did use our restrooms, which is completely understandable, if not acceptable. Our library was a two-story building constructed of red brick, concrete, and insulated tented windows. Unless the interior lights were on at night, it was almost impossible to see inside these windows from outside the building. It was an oblong, rectangular structure with a second floor that extended out from the first floor by about five feet or so thanks to curved concrete supports at its corners and along its sides.
From our break room, with windows that extended to the floor, the library staff had an excellent vantage point to look out over the parking lot and into the front seats of the cars. Several times a week for a few months, the male driver of a beat up 70s model four-door sedan painted a nauseating color of Fuchsia would pull into the lot and wait. Usually within a few minutes, a small white car would pull in and park close by, and the female driver would get out of the automobile and into the man’s car. After a few minutes of chatting, the fun began. Her head would disappear in his lap, their bodies would contort, and, well, you get the picture. We soon began referring to his car as the “Fuchsia F*** Mobile.” These escapades took place in broad daylight, usually around lunch time. On several occasions we saw people walk right past the front of the man’s car, but apparently no one ever noticed what was happening. But we did. Some of us even took notes.