The Gregory Mantell Show -- Libraries Gone Wild
Have our public libraries been taken over by the homeless, drug dealers, and pedophiles? Author Don Borchert tells all in "Free For All." Plus, author Dennis Komick, whose children's books help give your kids a moral compass.
Tags: public libraries taken over homeless drug dealers pedophiles violence don borchert free for all dennis komick children's author brodie yeti book kids moral compass adoption
Added: 4 years ago
[scene opens with a man ("Gregory Mantell, Host") speaking directly to the camera]
GREGORY: You may think it's the most boring place in the world, the public library, but guess again. Today, Don Borchert, author of "Free for All" is here.
[cut to an older man (white hair, beard, leather jacket) sitting next to him]
GREGORY: You may be surprised to find out about the drug dealers, gangs, pedophiles, and homeless who hang out at today's public libraries. And later, childrens' author Dennis Komick. His books help give your kids a moral compass.
[he turns to his guest]
GREGORY: First up, Don Borchert. Great to have you here today, Don.
[they shake hands]
DON: Thank you, thank you for inviting me.
GREGORY: Now, this is not your father's public library!
["Don Borchert, author Free For All" appears on screen]
DON: In my, uh, my father's ... I-I have vivid memories of that. I used to go to the library with my folks as a kid, and you would walk in, and there were ashtrays in those days.
DON: And the place was quiet and peaceful, and it seemed like nothing ever happened. So they've changed!
GREGORY: They've changed.
DON: It's changed a bit ...
GREGORY: And one reason I wanted to have you on the show, y'know, I must say I've been going to the public library quite a bit lately myself in Santa Monica in Beverly Hills.
DON: Mm hmm.
GREGORY: And I mean, I hate to say it, because y'know, it's a big problem, but honestly, when I go in the public library in Santa Monica, often I feel that it's ... it's half homeless people and half students. And maybe more homeless or crazy people, and it's a big problem. I don't mean to diminish or make fun of homeless people, but you go in there to get something done and there are like people living there! I go in the bathroom, they're washing, shaving, cleaning, y'know--
DON: Well, that's the curse of the public library, because we go out of our way to be inviting.
DON: Uh, there's no membership fee, there's no ... I mean, we would go out and give out free bags of popcorn to bring people in!
GREGORY: And they come!
DON: And so sure enough, they'll come. And so, uh, and so as a result you get a broad spectrum. You get everybody that you want, and then everybody else--
DON: Will come in.
GREGORY: Now, is that good or bad? As I say, from some patron's point of view, at least, y'know, if you go in there, a lot of homeless or people talking to themselves or yelling and screaming, that's kind of uncomfortable. What do you think, as the librarian having observed this?
DON: It's, uh, it ... That's one of the reasons I called it "Free For All," because that's one of the two meanings of the book. But, um, the library is supposed to be inviting.
GREGORY: Mm hmm.
DON: It's, in my system, we even have put together a series of procedures where, if you're homeless, we can get you a library card.
DON: And that's a library card with no driver's license, no fixed address, no phone number. We will just give you books. And so it's, it's a resource for everyone.
GREGORY: Now again, I mean, it's great that you're obviously, y'know, it's not ... You actually are welcoming homeless in the library. Do you have problems because of it?
DON: It ... I work in a branch library in a fairly affluent community, and so we have a little bit of everything. Uh, as I mention in the book, we've had homeless. We've had pedophiles. We've had drug deals going sour. Uh--
GREGORY: And we'll come to that!
DON: And, yeah. And then, and my daughter, who works in a ... who is a real librarian, I'm a pretend librarian.
DON: Uh, she works in a large LA metropolitan library and, uh, ringed with homeless shelters.
DON: And it's a constant, uh, it's a constant thing that they have to ... uh, be girded for. Be ready for, because they come in every day.
GREGORY: Well, also, your book gave me a little more insight, or maybe into the humanity of it, because you talk about the one librarian who actually knows ... In other words, as I say, you see kind of the crazy people who are talking to themselves or maybe you.
GREGORY: Y'know, which is even more uncomfortable! But, um, but you talk about the librarian who kind of knew the guy, or like he would yell and go crazy if the little kids came up to him.
GREGORY: But he was actually a regular, and--
DON: He ... That man still comes in the library. He, uh, I've worked for the library, say, around fifteen years. He was there when I got the job, and just about three weeks ago, we thought there was a fight in the biographies, and one of the librarians went over there and he was getting into an argument with a shelf.
GREGORY: Oh no!
DON: So ... and usually when that happens, at one point he realizes, "I better go outside and walk around a bit."
DON: And, uh, then he did.
GREGORY: Now, how often do you have to call the police?
DON: We, we don't call them ... We call the police regularly but infrequently.
DON: They're used to getting our phone calls, but we're retiscent to call them up too much, because a lotta times I'm sure they get the feeling ... "Oh, y'know, the librarians are calling because somebody's talking in an outside voice."
GREGORY: Right, right. You kinda talk about the politics of it.
DON: Yeah, but we had ... We had one meeting with one of the community-based officers, and they told us, they said, "In this situation and this situation, y'know, there are a variety of situations, call the police."
DON: You don't ... And nothing even has to happen, you just have a feeling that something might.
DON: And, as a matter of fact, there's a book called "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell.
DON: And his idea was ... that you will get a snap judgment about a person in a fourth of a second, and the hair on the back of your neck will raise, and the police--
GREGORY: Is the hair on the back of your neck standing up right now?
DON: Only because of the weather! But, uh, he said don't, I mean, don't neglect these feelings. If, y'know, act on them. And so, we've had people in the library and they'll be reading a book, and somebody walks past and they'll go, "Uh oh, watch that guy."
DON: And we do, and more often than not, it's a good thing to watch certain people.
GREGORY: So, what's some of the ... well, y'know, this is TV, what can I say?
GREGORY: What're the worst-case scenarios, which is one reason you wrote the book. Y'know, the drug dealers or something, what's the worst thing that you've seen?
DON: The, uh, some of the grisliest ... Well, I-I've been attacked.
DON: Uh, I was at the main branch, and a man came in and checked out eight books and he said, "Now put them--"
[he begins motioning with his arms]
DON: He wanted me to put them in order from largest to small. And I thought, "Well, we don't do that."
DON: Y'know, and then he wanted the checkout slip on the third book down, a fourth of an inch in. And I said, "You're checked out, you're free to go."
[he waves his hands around]
DON: And then, things got ... Things kind of escalated, and he said he was gonna teach me a lesson, and come around the desk and he was gonna show me a thing or two if I didn't. And he started swearing and I thought, "This is it."
[he moves his hand as if he's reaching under a desk]
DON: And I started looking around for the button--
GREGORY: The panic button.
DON: The button, and we do have a button.
GREGORY: Oh, there is a button!
GREGORY: You're like the bank, you've got the button!
DON: Except that sometimes it buzzes in a room where there's nobody there!
DON: And so I was just pressing it pretty frequently, and uh, and the security guard came just as he was coming around to teach me a lesson.
DON: But by that time, I was in such a state that I was ready to be ... I said, "Let's go outside!"
DON: Y'know, and they said, "No Don, you're a librarian!"
GREGORY: Well, and you kinda talk about that, because you can't ... Well, first of all, I should say, people wanna know what happened. They took the guy away, or he can't come back?
DON: He, they gave him a sound ... This is another thing, they gave him a sound talking to!
DON: And said, "You're not allowed to assault library staff."
DON: And, uh--
GREGORY: Good to clarify that!
DON: Good to clarify it. And then, "Please come back."
GREGORY: Please come back ...
DON: So, uh--
GREGORY: And does he?
DON: And he does.
GREGORY: And he does.
DON: He does, but he's somewhat chastised. But, uh, in the weeks after that incident, things grew. Rumors grew, like, "Don kicked that guy's ass!"
DON: And, uh, so people came up and congratulated me. They said, "Oh, everybody in this library's had problems with him!"
GREGORY: So you're a legend now!
DON: I'm a legend!
DON: Y'know, even though I said, "I didn't hit him!"
DON: But, uh, I don't tell them that.
GREGORY: Well, and you kind of talk about that, too. You say that, um, there are kind of limits on what you can and can't do. For instance, if they're standing there yelling and screaming, you're not supposed to yell and scream back?
DON: We can't yell and scream back. We have to go to our last resort, which is being efficious.
DON: And we just say ...
[he smiles and waves his finger back and forth]
DON: "Please, sir."
DON: And, uh, while somebody else is calling the police or--
GREGORY: Ringing the button!
DON: Yeah, hitting the button. So, uh, and the only thing we will do is ... and it's something we learned from the police, is we put something between them and us. Either a shelf, or a counter, or something. And then we, "Mm hmm. Mm hmm."
GREGORY: And what about that big book? Do you hit them with the big book, because you mentioned the big book.
DON: We have a big book, and we ... uh, have other things beneath the counter. But, uh, they have access to the same books we do, so--
DON: I'm not sure how much it would work.
GREGORY: I think you said at one branch, they have a baseball bat behind the counter?
DON: Th-They, uh, I think this was, it wasn't in our branch, it was in a different system, but the woman came from very, uh, very ... it was an area where there was lots of things happening.
DON: And they had a baseball bat behind the counter, at least to make them feel good.
GREGORY: Tough library.
[he turns to the camera]
GREGORY: We'll be right back.
["The Gregory Mantell Show" appears on screen, then cut to another shot of Gregory and Don talking]
GREGORY: And we're back with Don Borchert, author of "Free for All", today talking about some of the crazy things that happen in the public libraries. Um, well, drug dealers. You've had drug dealers and drug deals going down in the library?
DON: We had, uh, we were the last to know. Uh, there were two young men who were, uh, we just thought they were homeless guys that were trying to get a leg up and read some magazines. But they would, uh, they would come in in the morning and get a phone call from the public phone, and leave some drugs in the trash can outside.
DON: And then go to our public restroom, where they hid the drugs in the air conditioning vent.
DON: And that went on for, say, three or four months. And then one day the police came in ... I don't know how the police knew. We didn't. But, uh--
GREGORY: So, they were under surveillance or something?
DON: Something, yeah.
DON: They knew about them. And, uh, they took them outside and arrested them, and said you can never come back here again.
GREGORY: And I think you said that ... I mean, what? Technically, they could come back if they wanted to, but the police kinda--
DON: Uh, yeah. Y'know, we try to be welcoming, and the police are not as welcoming as we are.
GREGORY: So they'll figure out some way to--
DON: Yeah. So they said, y'know, figure it out ... "Listen to us, or listen to the librarians!"
GREGORY: Gotcha! Well, I have to tell you, um ... this is, maybe, at the other end of the scale, but my own pet peeve, I think--
GREGORY: I honestly, I would say I support capital punishment for people who talk on cell phones during the movie, and in the library.
DON: Mm hmm.
GREGORY: Because a lotta people are talking on cell phones in the library. Do you notice that these days?
DON: We, the thing that scares us even more than that, is the ... uh, I guess it's blue, is it called "bluetooth?"
[he points at his ear, and Gregory laughs]
DON: That thing in your ear? And, because we'll see people in, y'know, they'll be in the biographies and they'll say, "I'm gonna bring home some milk today and maybe some, well I dunno!" And you think--
DON: "Are they on the phone, or are they crazy?"
GREGORY: You think it's another crazy person!
DON: And then you have to, like, lean over and make sure that they've got something in their ear!
GREGORY: And probably ... and you never know, probably half of them are crazy and half of them actually are on the bluetooth.
DON: Half of them don't even, yeah! It's just a little cardboard thing, yeah!
GREGORY: And ... Oh, and the other thing is, um, now I'm sure that you get a lotta complaints from the public or hear, y'know, like I say, the people mouthing off, but my own pet peeve though, I guess, from the patron's point of view is I use the wi-fi a lot. And so, when I take my laptop in, I'll use it like at Coffee Bean or something. Or all the, y'know, it's a Mac, you just turn it on and it works.
DON: Mm hmm.
GREGORY: And I use it at the library a lot. But one day I'll go in and it's not working, and I report it, and they'll look at me and say ... Oh sorry, this is the Beverly Hills library, they'll love me over there!
GREGORY: Uh, they actually said to me, they said, "You're the first person who reported it" ... And I said, "Oh yeah. Well, I probably am, but it's down, y'know?"
GREGORY: I was trying to be a little bit nicer than that about it, but ... but then, even then, so I finally said, "Well, y'know, could you call your IT department and report it?" And they claimed--
GREGORY: Anyway, but it's very hard ... Actually, this even happens at the Apple store. But it's very hard to report when the wi-fi's down, nobody knows what to do.
GREGORY: So, if I walked in and told you that wi-fi was down, would you look into it?
DON: Uh, no.
GREGORY: No! Oh my god ...
DON: No, we have an IT group that comes and regularly gives us viruses and things.
GREGORY: Oh, okay.
DON: So, and that's also one of the curses of the public library, is that technologically, we're not as adept as the population at large. Uh, for example, I know about the computer, but I didn't really have a computer or know about it until I began working at the library. And it was only about a year before that, that we had card catalogs.
GREGORY: Well, speaking of which, the technology. Of course, the internet. Um, the internet's wide open in the library, apparently, right? So that means patrons are looking at anything and everything?
DON: And not only do they look at anything and everything, uh ... Librarians, although we look mousey and kind of, you wouldn't wanna have us over for Sunday dinner--
DON: They have, they have some steel in their veins. And they're very pro-free speech.
DON: Which means that when you sit at a computer ... uh, internet, we don't filter it.
DON: We don't filter it at all.
GREGORY: So even if somebody is sitting there watching porn in the middle of the library--
DON: There's a wrinkle. If there's an adult looking at porn in the library, we will think that person is foul and should go somewhere, but we won't do anything.
GREGORY: Mm hmm.
DON: But if that person is sitting next to a seventh grader--
DON: And says, "Ooh, look at this!" ... Then we call the police and have them arrested for distributing pornography.
GREGORY: Oh wow, okay.
GREGORY: So, okay. So it's not completely wide open, then. And you've had cases where there was apparently someone that, as we were talking about, pedophiles who apparently was ... Because, well, you say that parents tend to, the other thing that people may not know is people drop their kids at the library a lot.
GREGORY: And there was some guy in there, hanging out looking for little kids or something?
DON: We have ... Well, the story that springs to mind is we have, we're free daycare.
DON: So, some of the kids ... School gets out at three, three-fifteen. We're across the street from a junior high, and we're about a block away from an elementary school.
DON: So, uh, the majority of the kids will get picked up at six, which is three hours. And we've had incidents where at eight o'clock at night, we'll have third graders.
[he starts counting on his fingers]
DON: Um, so three, four, five, six ... They've been in the library for five hours.
DON: And they haven't eaten since noon.
DON: And we don't have a lot of ... Uh, we don't have a lot of kind spirits and friendliness to the parents when they come and pick them up.
GREGORY: And do you ever call the city and report, I mean--
DON: We, the library closes at eight o'clock, and by eight-ten, if I'm in charge, I call the police.
GREGORY: Wow, wow. And ... but you have had problems with pedophiles in the library, as well?
DON: We've had, we've had some ... We've had some people, have exposed themselves. This, this has happened several times, where a person will expose themselves, and the person that has been exposed to, uh, freezes and will let us know about a half hour later.
DON: And so, there's not much we can do.
GREGORY: Well, I think of something that happened in the Beverly Hills library. Um, which is right next to the police station, it's really not a good place to mess around, because it's literally right next to the police station. And one day, I remember, I was in there and I heard somebody start screaming, like, "He attacked me!"
DON: Mm hmm.
GREGORY: But it, honestly, it sounded like a crazy person talking, or like yelling out.
DON: Mm hmm.
GREGORY: And the police were there in a few seconds, and kind of, I saw them taking him out of the building or something, and ... but anyway, I felt like everybody was ready to get under the table, I think.
GREGORY: Y'know, because ... you wait for the gun to be pulled out or something! You don't know what's going on, but uh--
GREGORY: So, um, but I guess the other thing. Well, just having ... Well, the title. You wanna tell us how the title came about?
DON: The title, uh, the title right now is "Free for All." And uh, that came to me, my daughter suggested that. She said ... We were having problems, it turned out that writing the book is easy. Coming up with the title is hard. But, uh, she said, "You should call it Free for All!" Because there'e two completely different meanings. One is, it's a free institute. It's open and welcoming for everybody and anybody that walks in the door. We would have sofas, except that people would live there.
DON: Uh, and the other--
GREGORY: And they would!
DON: And part two of that is that, uh, "free for all" is what our library is every afternoon at three thirty.
DON: It's a hockey game!
GREGORY: It is free for all ...
GREGORY: Well, the other thing ... I hope I'm not blowing the lid off the secret here, but it sounds like you don't enforce fines very vigorously.
DON: We ... I-I'd like to. Uh, the library was not set up as a money-making thing. So, uh, we don't really done people the way I would like to. But, if you--
GREGORY: Because I always thought, y'know like, if I got a fifty-cent fine or something, I thought they were gonna turn me over to collection or something was gonna go on or--
DON: You haven't been in my library!
DON: But, uh, if you were to come in the library and you're a regular and we recognize you, and you've got eighteen dollars in fines ... and in this economy, any one of us would go, "Give us three bucks and we'll waive the rest."
DON: "Try not to do it again" ... because, y'know, it's tough to spend, I mean, it's tough to have all of your discretionary income just go to the library. But, uh, if you've been in an accident and can't make it, if you fifty dollars in fines and are really sorry, we will cut a deal.
GREGORY: Alright, well, I'll cut you a deal.
GREGORY: Thank you very much, Don Borchert!
[they shake hands]
DON: Thank you!
GREGORY: The book is "Free for All." We'll be right back with Dennis Komick, childrens' author.
["The Gregory Mantell Show" appears on screen]
Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library
by Don Borchert
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Virgin Books (November 13, 2007)
Not long ago, the public library was a place for the bookish, the eggheaded, and the studious - often seeking refuge from a loud, irrational, crude, outside world. Today, libraries have become free-for-all entertainment complexes filled with rowdy teens, deviants, drugs, and even sex toys. Lockdowns and chaperones are often necessary.
Don Borchert was a short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, telemarketer, and Christmas-tree-chopper before landing a job in a California library. He never could have predicted his encounters with the colorful kooks, touching adolescents, threatening bullies, and tricksters who fill the pages of this hilarious memoir.
In Free for All, Borchert offers readers a ringside seat for the unlikely spectacle of mayhem and absurdity that is business as usual at the public library. You'll see cops bust drug dealers who've set up shop in the men's restroom, witness a burka-wearing employee suffer a curse-ridden nervous breakdown, and meet a lonely, neglected kid who grew up in the library and still sends postcards to his surrogate parents - the librarians. In fact, from the first page of this comic debut to the last, you'll learn everything about the world of the modern-day library that you never expected.
Jack-of-all-trades Borchert shares wholesome, guardedly witty dispatches from the suburban L.A. library system in this charming tell-all. For 12 years the family-man author has held the post of assistant librarian, keeping a wary eye on unruly kids, mollifying mystified parents and repairing sadly manhandled materials. Borchert relays a conversation with an aged librarian who reveals how it was in the good old days (staff lunches used to be served with wine), then contrasts that account with modern-day multicultural crayons and the preponderance of latchkey kids abandoned in the library for long, numbing afternoons. A few of the regular patrons are inspiring Renaissance types, but most are unsettling and unsavory, such as intensely reclusive crossword-puzzler Henry hounding the reference desk; loser Max looking futilely on the Internet for a South American wife; or the drug dealers working the restroom. From patrons who rack up hundreds of dollars in fines to missing pet rats and fist-fighting mothers, Borchert has seen it all, and his account gives a human interest spin to this undervalued profession.
This librarian's life isn't by the book at 'All'
Updated 11/19/2007 9:01 PM
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - At first, Don Borchert wanted to title his quirky memoir about the unlikely drama found in a public library Ten Years, Good Behavior.
After all, it deals with the bureaucracy of civil service which rewards rule-following more than creativity or imagination.
But his publisher feared readers would think it's about prison. (Borchert does report on how the police busted drug dealers working out of the library's men's room.)
Next, he considered calling the book A Librarian Raises His Voice, but that was considered "too dry."
Then, the oldest of Borchert's three daughters - a "real librarian," he says, who unlike her father actually studied library science - thought of a title with "a perfect double meaning."
Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library (Virgin, $21.95) aims to do for libraries what Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase did for urban schools in 1965 or what Bill Buford's Heat did for professional cooks in 2006.
Borchert, in New York to promote his book, says Buford's account of working for the celebrated chef Mario Batali shows that "any profession, given a distinct voice, can be interesting."
Borchert, 58, an assistant in a library in a middle-class neighborhood in Torrance, Calif., acknowledges that a library can be the "dullest place in the world - 91% of the time."
He deals with the other 9%, especially when the junior high school across the street ends its day, and the library is flooded with latchkey kids with no other place to go for several hours.
As Borchert puts it: "The four library employees don't have a chance. It's like trying to take four conscientious adults and put them in charge of crowd control for the French Revolution."
Such problems last year forced the Maplewood (N.J) Public Library to close in the afternoons. It has since reopened, but the incident has focused attention on how libraries have become what Borchert calls "free-for-all entertainment complexes."
In Torrance, he says, "we're able to handle 95% of the kids."
And the other 5%?
"We try to cope. ... Sometimes we call the cops." Rather than the stereotypical librarian's "shush," he prefers to tell unruly youngsters: "If you want to go crazy, take it outside."
Librarians, Borchert says, tend "not to be overly ambitious people. Not extroverts. It's a way for some people to hide. But that doesn't mean they're not good people."
He celebrates the thrill "of giving someone the right book that can change his or her life," and he describes the challenges and frustrations of working in a place "that welcomes everyone."
Borchert is an accidental librarian who majored in English at Ohio State and worked in advertising, as a short-order cook, door-to-door salesman and Christmas tree chopper. He has wanted to be a writer since he was 16. After a decade as a librarian, he followed the adage: "Write what you know."
His oldest daughter, Andrea, recently earned a master's degree in library science. She's facing job interviews. One requires her to present a story time - not to children, but to library administrators. His fatherly advice: "Just treat them like 5-year-olds who happened to have clipboards."
A Civil Servant Is Born
I was single once, and young. I took jobs that amused me or offered themselves to me, and I walked around with a paycheck in my pocket, happy as a clam and living like a baron until my pockets were empty and I was broke. I thought this was the way to live, and I got away with it for years. I worked in a record store and listened to music all day long and sold Supertramp and Grateful Dead albums to cute girls in tie-dyed shirts and ragged, low-cut jeans. I became the classical music salesman, because I was the only one in the store besides the manager who knew how many symphonies Beethoven had written, and I could recommend a really good Swan Lake (Ansermet conducting the Suisse Romande Orchestra). There were, however, more gaps in my knowledge than there was knowledge. I didn't know a thing about composers like Haydn or Mahler or Scarlatti, and I certainly couldn't recommend specific performances or record labels. Luckily, people who asked for this kind of music usually had definite preferences, and I'd listen to them attentively, nodding at appropriate places, until I had milked them dry.
I was fired from the record store for my nonchalance. We had a big problem with shrinkage - merchandise walking out the door not having been paid for - and the manager figured it had to be me. It wasn't. It was Manny, the in-house big-band specialist, whose pot consumption was making him far more nonchalant than I could ever be. I figured the manager's mistake would dawn on him when the shrinkage continued long after I was history.
I worked as a proofreader for a religious publishing company. I also worked on a sod farm, folding slices of thick, green sod on large pallets. I was a grill chef at a very nice restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. I hauled trucks of fill dirt to level out a low-lying, boggy area at a local cemetery - the bog was hurting sales. I worked for the Ford Motor Company testing water pumps and flywheels, whatever they are. I worked the midnight shift at a convenience store in suburban Cleveland, where every so often the pay phone in the front of the store would start ringing around 3:00 a.m., and someone identifying himself as a policeman would suggest that I lock the front door for fifteen minutes or so, because two individuals - white, male, early twenties - were holding up convenience stores in my area in a primer-coated Camaro and pistol-whipping the clerks. I'd lock the front door and hide in the walk-in cooler for an hour until my teeth started chattering, wondering how I had come to such a point in my life.
For an ungodly stretch of time, I worked for a corporation that owned thousands of apartments and condos across the state, and all I did was change out cracked and vandalized commodes. I explained to the foreman that I had no particular expertise in this field, and he replied sagely: "After fifty or sixty of them, you'll get a handle on it." He was absolutely correct.
I did not mind terrible jobs, earning terrible wages, and I didn't mind sleeping in the back of my car, which I did for a few months. I was young and single, and having the time of my life. I did not see married life as the next logical step, but that's what happened. I became part of a couple, so there was another person to care for and to think about and everything changed. We shared a bathroom, an apartment, pondered the relative merit of different-colored bath towels, bought a welcome mat, shopped for groceries, and wound up adopting a kitten whose previous owners kept him outside at night in the bottom of an empty fifty-five-gallon drum.
How did I feel about children, about having one of my own? It had never occurred to me before. But holding my first newborn baby made me happy in a way I could have never imagined. I loved being a father, having a baby fall asleep on my chest and singing sea shanties to her at bedtime. We had two more girls. It was like coming home to Cirque du Soleil every night. And then there were trips to the emergency room, and to the doctor's office, and to schools and to rancorous PTA meetings, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye the carefree days of my youth were gone forever.
I needed to find a real job, anything to stave off creditors and put food on the table. Real jobs may be backbreaking, pointless, and monotonous, but they are always preferable to, say, fleeing from helicopters and foam-flecked hounds in knee-deep, tea-colored water, shackled at the ankles. Real jobs have starting times, written descriptions, salary ranges, dental coverage, and holidays. A real job is something someone else would gladly do if you threw up your hands and decided that it was too much for you.
A real job is working in the private sector for people who have painstakingly built a business and expect it to make a profit. More often than not, a company will jettison most of its employees just to keep the company alive. Or the ownership of the company will change, and the new owners will want to put in their own people, to ensure loyalty. Or the owner will get cancer and say the hell with this, and spend his last few salty crumbs of time sailing the Pacific with his wife, drinking good wine on a small but well-equipped yacht. These are real jobs.
I applied for a position as an advertising manager for one of the heavyweights in the closed circuit television industry. The job seemed like something I could do, even though I had never done such a thing before. At the interview I was very confident - at least as confident as the applicants who had done such a thing before but were bridling at the ridiculously low starting salary. My totally unfounded confidence and willingness to accept substandard wages put me ahead of the other candidates, and I got the job. The whole business was cameras. Cameras in the operating room. Cameras in the patient. Cameras in the parking garage. Cameras at the ATM machine. Lots and lots of cameras in the casinos. Cameras watching the babysitter. Cameras making sure that no one was trying to fuck with the other cameras. One morning, the parent company sent two very special messengers to our company, who went in and had a closed-door meeting with the president and, a little more than an hour later, emerged from the meeting, walked the president of the company to his car with a box of his modest belongings, and told him not to come back. Because I had been personally selected by the outgoing president, it was only a matter of time before two lower-echelon messengers walked me to my car, too. I, however, had cleverly been taking office supplies for the previous six weeks, so I knew my pen and pencil and tape expenses would be minimal for some time to come.
So I became Mr. Mom. One of the things I did to make ends meet was to take a job as a "yard lady" at my daughter's elementary school. I was a bulldog of a yard lady, too. I broke up fights between second graders, sent kids to the school nurse for scraped knees, chided them for cheating at dodge ball, and blew a stainless steel whistle whenever I really wanted to get the children's attention. Armed only with this metal whistle, a clipboard, and an all-weather Sharpie - in case I had to write up the more egregious playground violations in the rain - I wielded tremendous but very limited power. I was the biggest and oldest of fish in the smallest and youngest of ponds.
Your quality of life, however, cannot help but go into a quiet and horrible downward spiral when you're grossing sixty dollars a week as a yard lady. It's just not enough these days. After taxes, you are making enough money to treat yourself to a McDonald's Happy Meal every day. Forget about those lottery tickets, birthday presents, groceries, or asthma prescriptions for your child. That kind of life is behind you. There's enough gas to get you to the school and back home again, though you should probably start thinking seriously about walking to the bank to cash that check. The decline in lifestyle is almost imperceptible, tragically graceful, and it would have been hilariously piquant if it were happening to anyone else but me.
One day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, Susan. We both worked at Northrop Electronics in the good old days of aerospace, when the United States thought we'd better fine-tune our missile systems or the Soviet Union would do to us what we were thinking of doing to them. We worked on a classified project called the MX missile system, and the less said about that the better. The MX missile system acted like my stupid dog when I hold out a treat and say "Here, Buddy!" Sometimes the missile worked, sometimes it just sat there, and sometimes it completely ignored me and chewed itself for fleas. When the generals in charge had seen enough, they canceled the project, funneled the money to other spurious projects, and everyone got walked to their cars.
Susan told me that she was applying for a civil service job in the South Bay Library system, a middle-class suburb right next to Los Angeles. How hard could that be? You're in a room full of books. Someone comes in and you let them have a few. You remind them to bring them back. Someone talks too loud and you tell him to knock it off. She suggested I apply for the job, too. I had never entertained a civil service thought in my life.
She said, "The good thing about civil service is that you can fall over and die once you get the job. No one ever quits civil service, and you have to be a fucking idiot to get fired. Just show up every day, on time, until your probationary period is over - like three months - smile at everyone, keep your mouth shut, and you're golden." Susan made it sound simple. "You fill out an application. Take a typing test, get interviewed, give them three references, tell them what they want to hear, and that's it. You're in."
And it was simple. The aerospace application was more than ten pages long and asked you what you were doing twenty years ago. The civil service application was barely a page and a half and virtually multiple choice. Susan listed me as one of her references and I listed her as one of mine.
We both advanced to the typing test. To prepare for this, I bought a software typing program and did the tests and exercises on a home computer until I was cruising along at around 94 words per minute. The library demanded 40 words per minute, which can be managed using two fingers. I intended to smoke all other applicants on this point. The day of the typing test, a group of about twenty of us filed into a dark, dank, windowless basement room and sat at long, formal rows of cute, archaic workstations. This is the last stop on the road to oblivion for obsolete, city-owned computers. After this point, even the elementary schools will make a sour face and decline the donation.
Two minutes into the test a nicely dressed, middle-aged woman next to me let out an audible sigh, took off her glasses, and rubbed her eyes in defeat, shaking her head. She had cracked under the pressure.
Four weeks later, I was invited to an oral interview. I sat across from three somber librarians who had been imported from other library systems to preserve impartiality, shook the hand of one of them, and smiled at the other two, who kept their hands politely in their laps.
What would I do if I thought a patron was intoxicated?
What would I do if I saw a child pulling books off the shelves and ripping pages out?
What would I do if I saw a coworker stealing from the petty cash?
What would I do?
Everyone is asked the same tiresome volley of questions, and I knew the right answer. I'd go to my supervisors and inform them. I'd do the chain-of-command thing. I'd let them make the big decisions.
The interview took ten minutes. At the end, and only then, they relaxed and smiled back at me. They were happy that I had the right answers. Not everyone can be expected to answer this way. Sometimes an interviewee will say that he would throw a person out, grab a person and smack the book out of his hands, call the police, or tackle the prick in the parking lot, and this kind of answer does not make them smile and relax. Loose cannons do not do well as civil servants, and when they are hired it never ends well.
Two weeks later, I was called back for yet another interview. I was asked mostly the same questions, only this time I was talking to the people I might soon be working with. The panel consisted of three older women, all of whom have since retired. Each took a turn reading questions aloud from a clipboard they passed along from person to person. When I responded, they smiled reassuringly and shook their heads warmly. The whole interview was so unnaturally convivial that I wondered if one of the three was training a small handgun on me from underneath the table. But they just wanted to hear the same answers I had given the first time, and more importantly, they wanted to have a warm feeling for the person in front of them. They wanted me to be nicely dressed but not self-consciously formal. Casual but not insouciant. Most of all, relaxed and warm. I was all these things. I knew enough to leave my wise-ass self at home that day.
By the time I got home from the interview, there was a message on my answering machine to report to City Hall to schedule a physical, sign the necessary documents, promise to swear allegiance to the union, and listen to a two-hour presentation on what it was going to be like to work for the city. I showed up at City Hall with an entire gaggle of the newly employed, and after the two-hour presentation a union official showed us a wooden box filled with books and said we would be required to prove that we could lift a similar box at the upcoming mandated physical. Picking up a box is no longer part of the hiring process as it was deemed discriminatory to people who could not pick up the box.
As we filed out, we were informed that we would be getting paid for the time spent in orientation, at whatever our normal hourly rate would be. We were going to get paid for sitting in a room listening to what it was going to be like to be city employees.