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Homeless who hang at the downtown San Diego library

Loiterers in Heaven

"When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you."

If you are reading this, you probably have certain associations with libraries, most likely from childhood. Mine involve the Oak Park/River Forest public library in suburban Illinois. Its high-backed leather chairs, fireplace, benevolent and helpful women, volumes of Rafael Sabatini stories, New Yorker cartoon collections, science-fiction novels, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Thurber, Franklin W. Dixon, or H.P. Lovecraft were all a retreat, a haven from schoolroom fistfights and parental discord.

"Most of us librarians are very protective of these people."

For you, it may have meant something else entirely.

It strikes me that people have pleasant memories, poignant, even fuzzy feelings about these public institutions — or none at all. Perhaps a third category exists. If you’re someone like my brother — who was dyslexic and told he was stupid — and find reading a chore, libraries may well be a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare; hell, in fact. But for me, they can be heaven — or as close as you can get. The reading room of the British Museum is where I’ll go when I die if I change my wicked ways.

The main branch of the San Diego Public Library is a unique atmosphere of scholarly treasures and entertainments. At the same time, it is a daytime asylum for normal, literate, and well-mannered folk but also some wild-eyed, unkempt, or “touched” characters. I have seen nothing quite like it in, for example, the main branches of Manhattan’s or Chicago’s library system.

Take this one guy, a man I have seen more than once. He has the look of a Vietnam veteran, not that I know he is, he just has “The Look,” if you know what I mean. He summons piles of Playboys from “the stacks” (the vast basement of SDPL downtown) or “the tombs,” as one patron puts it. It is likely that he asks for the same issues every time. Seated at one of the long tables in front of the call desk where an elevator delivers requested material from below, he spreads the centerfold over the table and stares at it. He opens each magazine carefully to the exact page of each issue he’s asked for.

This man exhibits no licentious behavior. In fact, he barely moves. He simply stares. Other patrons walking by have an excellent view of Miss February 1971. I don’t know that he comes in every day or for how long he sits there staring at airbrushed breasts, but I have seen him often, and he sits for quite a long time.

Another man I have seen, who is clearly from the Middle East, is also here today. I’ve seen him sitting in the periodicals section sometimes taking notes in what looks to be Arabic script. He seems pleasant enough. I have noticed, over the months, a variety of reading materials in front of him: books and magazines whose subjects appear to have little in common. Today he is pouring over Chases Annual Events. He has literature open before him but merely stares off into space or toward the ceiling for long, very long, periods of time.

While waiting to speak with a librarian friend of mine about the regulars here, I pick up some scratch paper at the front desk. Scratch paper and small pencils are provided for research. The paper is usually 5" x 5" sheets, sometimes with dot matrix printouts on the side that isn’t blank. The sheet I pick up (irregularly sized, which may be why I picked it up) to send a note to my friend has a fragment of an in-house library memo on its front side. The memo reads in part: “Subj: Lending of Scissors to patron_.” I will not include the name on the memo. A source at the library later told me the pseudonym of the person in question. Something along the lines of “Winged Son of the Moonless Sky.” The memo goes on to say, “Please do not lend scissors to this patron. He frequently stops at the reference desks to discuss spaceships or distribute candy and cigars. In the past few months he has begun talking about stabbings and serial killers, and staff members have expressed concern about his behavior. If any of you know his full name, please let me know.” The names of two librarians appear at the bottom.

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Elizabeth has worked at the main branch of the San Diego Public Library for 12 years. A petite, late-fortyish brunette who “mans” the history desk three days a week, she’s become a connoisseur of the strange behavior one finds every day in this downtown building. She refuses to discuss any individual but speaks in general about the eccentrics who gravitate toward the library and spend much of their time there.

A single mother living in Coronado, it might seem inexplicable that Elizabeth not only suffers smelly madmen on her shifts but encourages them in their offbeat literary interests and often defends them to others.

The history desk is next to the information desk, directly across from the front door on F Street In other words, she is on the front line with anyone coming in off the street. Elizabeth is on a first-name basis with many of the “street people” but refuses to use them here. She takes me on a tour of the three-story building (and later the basement storage facilities). I notice characters I’ve seen on almost every visit, characters who spend much of their days in the library pursuing random, bizarre, even pornographic compulsions.

“One thing I want to stress,” says Elizabeth, “about all these patrons and all their idiosyncrasies is that most of us librarians are very protective of these people. We have a lot of respect for whatever information they want, no matter how weird we might think it is. It satisfies some need for them. When people come in and start dumping on them, saying, ‘Get the homeless people out of here,’ we’re the first people to go, ‘Wait a second! They have every bit as much right to be here as anyone else.’ And as long as they’re not hurting anybody.... We have a lot of respect for the fact that they’re there. Should they be on the street? In jail? Panhandling? The fact that they’re spending their time in the library, no matter how weird their pursuits, is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

But why would this seemingly well-to-do, suburbanite, brown-haired, brown-eyed, middle-aged woman want to work in the main branch? Why not Coronado or La Jolla?

“Because it’s the only game in town if you’re a public librarian,” she says. “I have a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University. My career before that was very different. My undergraduate degree at George Washington was in economics; I went to graduate school for two years at Texas A&M, and then I worked on Wall Street for five or six years. I had a career crisis, like, What am I doing? It was all about the bottom line: is it red or is it black? I knew I wanted to get out of it.”

I sat down with a piece of paper and thought, Okay, what can I picture myself doing at 65 years old? Only one thing appeared on the list, and that’s what I’m doing now.

When asked if she has any childhood associations to libraries, Elizabeth answers, “Yes, a really funny association. When I was a kid, during the summer, I was kind of a loner. We lived out in the country—a little town in New Jersey. Every morning I would get up and pack my lunch and ride down to the village to the library, which was right next to a park and pond. The librarian knew me, of course. She was the stereotype — hair in a bun, sensible shoes, you know. She was the first one to start feeding me adult books.

“I’ll never forget, I was in fifth grade. She gave me Leon Uris’s Exodus. Thereafter 1 was in the adult room, and I never went back. But I should really credit Nancy Drew for why I’m a librarian today.” Elizabeth laughs, an almost embarrassed, girlish giggle.

“But you ask me why I don’t work in La Jolla or Point Loma or something, to head up a branch? I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. It would be so boring to me. Working downtown is so fascinating. When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you. Some people who look so spiffy and so intelligent, so got-their-financial-acts-together will ask the dumbest questions in the world. ‘Do you have War and Peace by Robert Michener?’ ”

I was once asked a similar question while working years ago in a La Jolla bookstore. “Do you have that book, uh, From Hell to Eternity by James Joyce?” I pointed out he had both the title and the author screwed up, but the man wanted to be right rather than get the book.

Elizabeth goes on, “Street people can come up, and maybe the/re not dressed well at all or maybe they smell so bad that...” she waves a hand in front of her face “...and they will ask interesting questions. Not just esoteric but interesting.”

What is the most interesting question she’s been asked?

“I’d have to get back to you on that.”

Earlier that day I’d seen a man approach Elizabeth’s desk, a man I’d seen many times in the library. I will only say that this man has carried an umbrella every time I’ve seen him except once, oddly enough, when it was raining. I watched this man open a large art book on the surface of the history desk and pause while Elizabeth looked at photographs of Kamasutra-like paintings of phalluses penetrating maidens. That was on one page. The opposite page held photos of statues, male Greek nudes. The man with the umbrella paused for a moment while Elizabeth looked from the book to the man and back.

“Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

“I’m just idly curious,” he said. “Um, has anyone ever written about the Marxist influence on feminist thinking in the 19th Century?”

Perhaps not the most interesting question she’s been asked, but a very odd one in the context of the book he’d presented to her.

I didn’t catch Elizabeth’s referral, but the man seemed satisfied and wrote something down on a scratch sheet.

With my back to the history desk, I watch people — mostly young, but by no means all of them — work the bank of computers available to the public. They’re all on the Internet: some online for Dungeons & Dragons, others on chatlines, and one man online with a sex site. He is staring at a phosphor dot/cathode-ray tube image of a naked woman spreading her legs and her sex. It is difficult to peer over his shoulder because the library has installed hoods over the monitors for just this reason. Many of these people, Elizabeth tells me, “come in every day and stay for hours on the Internet. You don’t even need a library card. We call them the Internet Club. Many of them just hang out, sit there, and look at what is generally called pornography. They look at a lot of naked women. If you check the most popular sites on the Internet, you’ll find the/re all sex sites. Crotch shots. It’s not that it’s particularly offensive to us as librarians, but it can be offensive to us as women. You know, walking by and seeing a beaver in front of us. And mostly we are all women.”

On the second floor is a character I recognize, not only from the library, but I’ve seen this individual bicycling around town, along Pacific Coast Highway, and in Ocean Beach. Today this person is sitting at a table in the literature section reading an instructional book on the Chinese language — Mandarin Chinese, in fact. He is obviously a man — large hands, thick neck, and muscular bicyclist’s legs, one of which is wrapped in a gold-plated bicycle chain — but he is wearing a pink dress and a woman’s wig beneath a furry, dirty-white pillbox hat.

The restrooms down the hall from Social Sciences and the Music Studies room are used by many downtown homeless, often as a place to wash and bathe as best they can. The men’s room smells much as you might expect; it is unbearable despite constant janitorial efforts. Today, a man is stripped to the waist, cupping his hands into the sink beneath the tap, and running meager amounts of water over his head and face, his chest, his armpits. In one of the stalls, from which much of the odor is emanating, a man is groaning, nearly crying. A stench of vomit is pervasive, eclipsing the other bodily function smells in the small room.

I am most accustomed to the California Room for research on local history. The librarians whom I have asked naive questions have never been anything but saintlike in their patience and generous with their time. I don’t remember encountering any remarkable nuts in there; everyone works hard and silently on something or other. The only memorable occurrence I can think of was when I found myself sitting next to a fellow writer I’d met several times: she was at the microfiche machine, and I was at the computer. When we looked up and exchanged greetings, we discovered we were both working on the same story. Being lazy, I said something like, “Damn! Scooped me again. Well, it’s all yours.” I went home, cracked a beer, and watched a baseball game. Her story came out better than mine would have anyway.

On the way down the hall, I met the old scholar who entered the library with me. He wore a black snap-brimmed hat; a bent-stemmed pipe was lodged in his nicotine-colored beard Hunched shoulders, shuffling gait, seemingly mute — unless you get him into conversation outside library doors. He respects the time-honored and threatened tradition: While in the library, you should shut the fuck up. He wouldn’t put it that way, but he could quote you Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, even Lao-tzu saying in their own way, Shut the fuck up in the presence of those who study.

Dr. Richard von Kraflt-Ebing, a contemporary of Freud’s, documented in Psychopathia Sexualis numerous incidents of sexual aberrations connected with libraries and librarians. In high school, during Western Civilization period, I sat in the front row. The door to the classroom was open, and I could look across the hall to the library, the librarian at her desk — and beneath her desk. She was a plain woman with sensible shoes and a knee-length dress. Somehow she fueled my fantasies for months precisely because she was a librarian. Kraflt-Ebing cites stories of men cruising libraries’ bottom shelves only to drool on women’s shoes. An incident like that took place downtown.

No one will officially confirm this, but a good source tells me a man was expelled from the main branch for lying on the floor (in a certain section you must not be afraid to visit just because of this episode) in order to look up women’s dresses. Elizabeth said, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that.”

I am not suggesting that the downtown library is a hotbed of sexuality, but it is a remarkable environment for studying human behavior. Elizabeth describes it this way: “Every day I come to work — it’s a brain party.”

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"When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you."

If you are reading this, you probably have certain associations with libraries, most likely from childhood. Mine involve the Oak Park/River Forest public library in suburban Illinois. Its high-backed leather chairs, fireplace, benevolent and helpful women, volumes of Rafael Sabatini stories, New Yorker cartoon collections, science-fiction novels, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Thurber, Franklin W. Dixon, or H.P. Lovecraft were all a retreat, a haven from schoolroom fistfights and parental discord.

"Most of us librarians are very protective of these people."

For you, it may have meant something else entirely.

It strikes me that people have pleasant memories, poignant, even fuzzy feelings about these public institutions — or none at all. Perhaps a third category exists. If you’re someone like my brother — who was dyslexic and told he was stupid — and find reading a chore, libraries may well be a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare; hell, in fact. But for me, they can be heaven — or as close as you can get. The reading room of the British Museum is where I’ll go when I die if I change my wicked ways.

The main branch of the San Diego Public Library is a unique atmosphere of scholarly treasures and entertainments. At the same time, it is a daytime asylum for normal, literate, and well-mannered folk but also some wild-eyed, unkempt, or “touched” characters. I have seen nothing quite like it in, for example, the main branches of Manhattan’s or Chicago’s library system.

Take this one guy, a man I have seen more than once. He has the look of a Vietnam veteran, not that I know he is, he just has “The Look,” if you know what I mean. He summons piles of Playboys from “the stacks” (the vast basement of SDPL downtown) or “the tombs,” as one patron puts it. It is likely that he asks for the same issues every time. Seated at one of the long tables in front of the call desk where an elevator delivers requested material from below, he spreads the centerfold over the table and stares at it. He opens each magazine carefully to the exact page of each issue he’s asked for.

This man exhibits no licentious behavior. In fact, he barely moves. He simply stares. Other patrons walking by have an excellent view of Miss February 1971. I don’t know that he comes in every day or for how long he sits there staring at airbrushed breasts, but I have seen him often, and he sits for quite a long time.

Another man I have seen, who is clearly from the Middle East, is also here today. I’ve seen him sitting in the periodicals section sometimes taking notes in what looks to be Arabic script. He seems pleasant enough. I have noticed, over the months, a variety of reading materials in front of him: books and magazines whose subjects appear to have little in common. Today he is pouring over Chases Annual Events. He has literature open before him but merely stares off into space or toward the ceiling for long, very long, periods of time.

While waiting to speak with a librarian friend of mine about the regulars here, I pick up some scratch paper at the front desk. Scratch paper and small pencils are provided for research. The paper is usually 5" x 5" sheets, sometimes with dot matrix printouts on the side that isn’t blank. The sheet I pick up (irregularly sized, which may be why I picked it up) to send a note to my friend has a fragment of an in-house library memo on its front side. The memo reads in part: “Subj: Lending of Scissors to patron_.” I will not include the name on the memo. A source at the library later told me the pseudonym of the person in question. Something along the lines of “Winged Son of the Moonless Sky.” The memo goes on to say, “Please do not lend scissors to this patron. He frequently stops at the reference desks to discuss spaceships or distribute candy and cigars. In the past few months he has begun talking about stabbings and serial killers, and staff members have expressed concern about his behavior. If any of you know his full name, please let me know.” The names of two librarians appear at the bottom.

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Elizabeth has worked at the main branch of the San Diego Public Library for 12 years. A petite, late-fortyish brunette who “mans” the history desk three days a week, she’s become a connoisseur of the strange behavior one finds every day in this downtown building. She refuses to discuss any individual but speaks in general about the eccentrics who gravitate toward the library and spend much of their time there.

A single mother living in Coronado, it might seem inexplicable that Elizabeth not only suffers smelly madmen on her shifts but encourages them in their offbeat literary interests and often defends them to others.

The history desk is next to the information desk, directly across from the front door on F Street In other words, she is on the front line with anyone coming in off the street. Elizabeth is on a first-name basis with many of the “street people” but refuses to use them here. She takes me on a tour of the three-story building (and later the basement storage facilities). I notice characters I’ve seen on almost every visit, characters who spend much of their days in the library pursuing random, bizarre, even pornographic compulsions.

“One thing I want to stress,” says Elizabeth, “about all these patrons and all their idiosyncrasies is that most of us librarians are very protective of these people. We have a lot of respect for whatever information they want, no matter how weird we might think it is. It satisfies some need for them. When people come in and start dumping on them, saying, ‘Get the homeless people out of here,’ we’re the first people to go, ‘Wait a second! They have every bit as much right to be here as anyone else.’ And as long as they’re not hurting anybody.... We have a lot of respect for the fact that they’re there. Should they be on the street? In jail? Panhandling? The fact that they’re spending their time in the library, no matter how weird their pursuits, is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

But why would this seemingly well-to-do, suburbanite, brown-haired, brown-eyed, middle-aged woman want to work in the main branch? Why not Coronado or La Jolla?

“Because it’s the only game in town if you’re a public librarian,” she says. “I have a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University. My career before that was very different. My undergraduate degree at George Washington was in economics; I went to graduate school for two years at Texas A&M, and then I worked on Wall Street for five or six years. I had a career crisis, like, What am I doing? It was all about the bottom line: is it red or is it black? I knew I wanted to get out of it.”

I sat down with a piece of paper and thought, Okay, what can I picture myself doing at 65 years old? Only one thing appeared on the list, and that’s what I’m doing now.

When asked if she has any childhood associations to libraries, Elizabeth answers, “Yes, a really funny association. When I was a kid, during the summer, I was kind of a loner. We lived out in the country—a little town in New Jersey. Every morning I would get up and pack my lunch and ride down to the village to the library, which was right next to a park and pond. The librarian knew me, of course. She was the stereotype — hair in a bun, sensible shoes, you know. She was the first one to start feeding me adult books.

“I’ll never forget, I was in fifth grade. She gave me Leon Uris’s Exodus. Thereafter 1 was in the adult room, and I never went back. But I should really credit Nancy Drew for why I’m a librarian today.” Elizabeth laughs, an almost embarrassed, girlish giggle.

“But you ask me why I don’t work in La Jolla or Point Loma or something, to head up a branch? I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. It would be so boring to me. Working downtown is so fascinating. When somebody comes up to the reference desk, no matter how they’re dressed, what they look like—you have no idea what they’re going to ask you. Some people who look so spiffy and so intelligent, so got-their-financial-acts-together will ask the dumbest questions in the world. ‘Do you have War and Peace by Robert Michener?’ ”

I was once asked a similar question while working years ago in a La Jolla bookstore. “Do you have that book, uh, From Hell to Eternity by James Joyce?” I pointed out he had both the title and the author screwed up, but the man wanted to be right rather than get the book.

Elizabeth goes on, “Street people can come up, and maybe the/re not dressed well at all or maybe they smell so bad that...” she waves a hand in front of her face “...and they will ask interesting questions. Not just esoteric but interesting.”

What is the most interesting question she’s been asked?

“I’d have to get back to you on that.”

Earlier that day I’d seen a man approach Elizabeth’s desk, a man I’d seen many times in the library. I will only say that this man has carried an umbrella every time I’ve seen him except once, oddly enough, when it was raining. I watched this man open a large art book on the surface of the history desk and pause while Elizabeth looked at photographs of Kamasutra-like paintings of phalluses penetrating maidens. That was on one page. The opposite page held photos of statues, male Greek nudes. The man with the umbrella paused for a moment while Elizabeth looked from the book to the man and back.

“Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

“I’m just idly curious,” he said. “Um, has anyone ever written about the Marxist influence on feminist thinking in the 19th Century?”

Perhaps not the most interesting question she’s been asked, but a very odd one in the context of the book he’d presented to her.

I didn’t catch Elizabeth’s referral, but the man seemed satisfied and wrote something down on a scratch sheet.

With my back to the history desk, I watch people — mostly young, but by no means all of them — work the bank of computers available to the public. They’re all on the Internet: some online for Dungeons & Dragons, others on chatlines, and one man online with a sex site. He is staring at a phosphor dot/cathode-ray tube image of a naked woman spreading her legs and her sex. It is difficult to peer over his shoulder because the library has installed hoods over the monitors for just this reason. Many of these people, Elizabeth tells me, “come in every day and stay for hours on the Internet. You don’t even need a library card. We call them the Internet Club. Many of them just hang out, sit there, and look at what is generally called pornography. They look at a lot of naked women. If you check the most popular sites on the Internet, you’ll find the/re all sex sites. Crotch shots. It’s not that it’s particularly offensive to us as librarians, but it can be offensive to us as women. You know, walking by and seeing a beaver in front of us. And mostly we are all women.”

On the second floor is a character I recognize, not only from the library, but I’ve seen this individual bicycling around town, along Pacific Coast Highway, and in Ocean Beach. Today this person is sitting at a table in the literature section reading an instructional book on the Chinese language — Mandarin Chinese, in fact. He is obviously a man — large hands, thick neck, and muscular bicyclist’s legs, one of which is wrapped in a gold-plated bicycle chain — but he is wearing a pink dress and a woman’s wig beneath a furry, dirty-white pillbox hat.

The restrooms down the hall from Social Sciences and the Music Studies room are used by many downtown homeless, often as a place to wash and bathe as best they can. The men’s room smells much as you might expect; it is unbearable despite constant janitorial efforts. Today, a man is stripped to the waist, cupping his hands into the sink beneath the tap, and running meager amounts of water over his head and face, his chest, his armpits. In one of the stalls, from which much of the odor is emanating, a man is groaning, nearly crying. A stench of vomit is pervasive, eclipsing the other bodily function smells in the small room.

I am most accustomed to the California Room for research on local history. The librarians whom I have asked naive questions have never been anything but saintlike in their patience and generous with their time. I don’t remember encountering any remarkable nuts in there; everyone works hard and silently on something or other. The only memorable occurrence I can think of was when I found myself sitting next to a fellow writer I’d met several times: she was at the microfiche machine, and I was at the computer. When we looked up and exchanged greetings, we discovered we were both working on the same story. Being lazy, I said something like, “Damn! Scooped me again. Well, it’s all yours.” I went home, cracked a beer, and watched a baseball game. Her story came out better than mine would have anyway.

On the way down the hall, I met the old scholar who entered the library with me. He wore a black snap-brimmed hat; a bent-stemmed pipe was lodged in his nicotine-colored beard Hunched shoulders, shuffling gait, seemingly mute — unless you get him into conversation outside library doors. He respects the time-honored and threatened tradition: While in the library, you should shut the fuck up. He wouldn’t put it that way, but he could quote you Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, even Lao-tzu saying in their own way, Shut the fuck up in the presence of those who study.

Dr. Richard von Kraflt-Ebing, a contemporary of Freud’s, documented in Psychopathia Sexualis numerous incidents of sexual aberrations connected with libraries and librarians. In high school, during Western Civilization period, I sat in the front row. The door to the classroom was open, and I could look across the hall to the library, the librarian at her desk — and beneath her desk. She was a plain woman with sensible shoes and a knee-length dress. Somehow she fueled my fantasies for months precisely because she was a librarian. Kraflt-Ebing cites stories of men cruising libraries’ bottom shelves only to drool on women’s shoes. An incident like that took place downtown.

No one will officially confirm this, but a good source tells me a man was expelled from the main branch for lying on the floor (in a certain section you must not be afraid to visit just because of this episode) in order to look up women’s dresses. Elizabeth said, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that.”

I am not suggesting that the downtown library is a hotbed of sexuality, but it is a remarkable environment for studying human behavior. Elizabeth describes it this way: “Every day I come to work — it’s a brain party.”

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