When I try to work in a public library I am reminded of my friend Eric’s description of a restless night spent attempting to sleep in an albergue on the Camino de Santiago in the company of two dozen sonorous, farting pilgrims. The presence of other people detracts from the experience.
Any noise out of place tends to distract, whether it comes from giggling children, chatty librarians, or the stumpy woman who flung herself into an empty chair at my table and started writing furiously all while audibly breathing through her mouth as if she were engaged in a waking snore.
That chair was later occupied by an old man who felt the need to clear his throat every 10 seconds while he read the newspaper.
The other day, a group of fourth-grade boys converged on a table in the reference section and were loudly giggling at something. I shushed them, and one of them impishly put his finger to his lip to shush me back. All this not 20 feet away from the librarian, who, of course, did nothing.
What has changed in the past 30 years? When I was a child, I remember a severe-looking woman of indeterminate age, with straight, mousy brown hair parted precisely in the middle, who was not shy about shushing people. When we went to the library on field trips, we learned that the first rule was to be quiet. Today, the first rule seems to be to express yourself, no matter how annoying it may be to other people.
Speaking of the library, here’s a poem I wrote awhile back about an old man I saw one day:
I have seen toupees in my time:
Stiff hair hats perched on chrome-domed racks,
Lifeless pelts that not even the cat would drag in
A robin’s nest of gray-brown twigs,
A catcher’s mitt,
An immoveable line,
A tectonic plate
Beneath which slips a leathered forehead
With every furrowing of the brow.
Today I saw a crusty mask,
A lived-in face, yes, dignified and wary
With bloodhound jowls and basset eyes
Staring rheumily through plate glass specs
Beneath a wondrous wig of bounteous brown
Tastefully wisped, Kennedyesque,
A mop-topped codger clinging forcefully to borrowed youth
Daring me to smile.