Saturday, August 22, 2009
A staff member of a foundation that had given a grant to the library was surprised that she needed to pay for a library card. Margie was polite but wouldn't budge on this point, and the visitor left. The next person had a valid referral card, and Margie started doing the brief paperwork to get her a reading card. She talked to me as she wrote out the card for our files.
"If they want to get something then it's not a gift", she said to me. "We'll arrange access for them like we do for anybody, irregardless of the gift."
I know she had used the word on purpose for my benefit. But what the hell. "Regardless", I said.
"Regardless, not irregardless."
Margie put the little visitor card carefully into the typewriter, so that the blanks in it would line up with the strike area. "Oh. Didn't hear you there. No, irregardless."
"Irregardless is almost a double negative. It would mean the same as regardful, if that's a word."
Type type. "And that's what I mean. I regard the gift. But it doesn't get them anything."
"You regard it?"
"Regardful of the grant, irregardless of it, giving it my regards, they don't get anything for it."
"No, if you regard it, that means you honor it."
"Sign here and you're all set." And to me: "I give it honor. It doesn't get them a library card."
The visitor signed the card and asked, "Are you two married?"
I had the answer to that one. "I am, but she's not."
I know I gave you that punch line before, but come on, it's good. We've jumped ahead three years from the last college story, and I'm onto my second fulltime job after college. The two staff members of the Library Information Office, Margie and me, handled two main functions: visitor privileges, and clearing students to register after they paid for lost books or overdue fines. Margie, the office head, did mostly the former and I did mostly the latter, but we were fully cross trained.
Margie: tall, blonde, chiselled features, blue eyes, got it? No, probably not ; probably you haven't accounted for the down to business attitude. Margie told me a boy she once babysat for liked to say "I'm tough! I eat rocks!"— and maybe she did too. I liked her. She was so self-confident. She knew herself. She was a few years older than me, but not much.
Being newly married might have had to do with it, but I don't remember being ga-ga over Margie's looks, and instead we settled into a very comfortable work friendship. She was actually a nut. The girl liked to talk. I never knew which stories about Sioux City, South Dakota, I should believe. And did she really work on screenplays with Fred Williamson? She made me want to believe it all... regardless.
Some weird things happened when she was not there and I was doing the visitor privileges side.
One day the nice little old man came in. He had on a good suit and tie. He told me he had an appointment with the Rare Books librarian. I asked him to have a seat and I called up to Rare Books and gave his name. They seemed exceedingly eager that I treat him kindly, and one of them would come down for him, but they needed a few minutes.
No one else was there, so we started talking. He told me he was a hundred and two years old and that he'd lived in the city all his life. With my interest in New York history I was eager to hear him go on. One of us mentioned the Brooklyn Bridge, and he said he would tell me something. When he was a young man, he was walking across the bridge and stopped and sat at a bench next to a woman in black, and they got to talking. She told him she was a Civil War widow. Civil War. He would have been a young man in the 1890s. That's not crazy. So, that's three degrees, me to a civil war soldier, if two brief encounters qualify.
Another one was when Dustin Hoffman came by. His wife at the time was the daughter of one of our librarians, and he came in needing directions to his father in law. Once again I thought it might be good to let him sit and make a call. I should provide you with a good anecdote here, but I can't remember either of us saying anything interesting in the couple of minutes we had together. My character at that time could probably have been played by Dustin Hoffman as The Graduate. "Duh."
Part of my job of clearing registrations had to do with the Controller's office. I got into a nice phone-call relationship with a man called Al over there. For a long time I never met him in person, even though he worked only a few buildings away, across the street from campus. This kind of unseen relationship has happened to me quite a few times in the email world, but this was back in paper and telephone days.
Al was older than me, I could detect, and he had some rank and respect he could use when the situation called for it. He taught me something by example about taking care of customers. His job was not about tuition payments, but only other kinds of "receivables" like library fines. Sometimes there would be confusion that crossed the bureaucratic lines, like charging a student's library and tuition payments to the wrong buckets. It could get into a place where the offices involved could easily fall into pointing fingers at each other instead of helping the customer. Al would not let this happen. He'd say, "I'll take a walk", and that meant he was going to go find the right people and get everything settled. He told me a few times that this wasn't really part of his job, but it was the right thing to do. I liked the concept, and I liked him for doing it. Once in a while, to this day, I sometimes see a bureaucratic mess getting started that I think I can straighten out, even if it goes beyond my official responsibilities. I'll even say, "I'll take a walk", because I found it works out a little better if I go see the people.
But one day Al needed some papers right away, so instead of sending them by campus mail, I said I would take a walk and hand-deliver them. I was going to see him in real life! He told me how to get to his office. I should go in the front door of the building, and downstairs. "At the end of the hall is a door marked NO ADMITTANCE. Go in there and turn right..." Craziest directions I ever heard. And when I went in and turned right, none of the office staff in there seemed concerned in any way about me coming in through that door. Oh yeah, he was a business-suit older guy that I ordinarily wouldn't have paid much attention to, to look at him, but see, I knew him, so it was great to see him.
I cleared registrations by hand-signing papers that the student would bring to the bursar. Get this: they had to pay at the bursar, walk halfway across campus for me to check that the payment receipt matched how much we thought they owed, and then they got to walk right back with my signature on the form to get cleared! I was never sure if the walking was intended to be part of the penalty, or if it was just the best we could do back when everything was done with paper forms.
Believe me, I learned to sign my name fast. This was how I developed my lifetime signature. The bursar's office agreed it could be just my initial and last name, which helped, and the cashiers became very familiar with my particular scribble, since around registration time they saw it over a hundred times a day (no joke).
One day a kid came in to us with the papers and said the bursar wouldn't accept the signature as real. I looked at it. It was something like my signature. I told him it didn't look right to me either, and I wanted to check whether he was clear. He sighed and said he'd already been through this and the signature was real. It was at this point that I told him that what he had there was a forgery of my signature. Now that was awkward. He turned fairly red. He didn't owe all that much either. It was just stupidity. I think he paid and we let it go.
Margie taught me something about processing paperwork. We sometimes had stacks of things to work on, and there were always a few people who at their request were special cases or exceptions. To me, special cases meant you do them first. That's what the people who request such things think they're going to get.
But no, Margie told me to do the normal ones first, because they were routine and we could run through them quickly. We would make ninety-five percent of the people happy by getting their paperwork out the door fast. Maybe that's obvious to you but I hadn't really thought about it. So we would always pull out special cases, or even papers that were too hard to read, and zip through the rest and send them off, and then sit there with the special cases and figure out what to do with them. Let that be a lesson to you.
I would not like to say that we sometimes mocked how people thought for no good reason that the usual rules did not apply to them, because you might think we were cruel. If you think we read off to each other unintentionally amusing answers to routine questions on the application form, to boost our spirits at the end of a weary day, and even considered taping a few of the best ones to the closet wall where only we would see them, you'd think we were not professional. So I will not give you any such ideas. No.
I was in LIO only for a year and few months. Then I moved on, to a promotion to a higher level job supervising the staff at the main circulation desk. Margie left too, a little later, to I don't know where. I'm sure she's knocking them dead someplace. When I first got to that office, I thought it was the most work I had ever had to do, but we had our laughs. It was good.
Before it was the Library Information Office, when I was in college, the room, near the front door of the building, had frosted glass on the doors hiding what was inside, and the gold lettering HEAD PROCESSING on the glass. We told new students that it was for people who studied too hard in the library and needed counselling. Yes, we did.
Photos: Spring flowers at my house, March 2008.
Next time: Moon Palace.