Thursday, September 23, 2010

That's how I knew this story would break my heart*

As some of you know, I serve a community that includes a significant marginalised population. Some are drug users; some are trying to get their lives on track and have simply suffered setbacks: I can count at least one former Nortel employee, for instance. Some live in subsidised housing; some live alone; some live at various missions and halfway houses that are in my neighbourhood. Each of these library visitors is an individual, and I do my best to help them as individuals; I hear many of their stories, or I can guess at their stories, and they vary as much as my story varies from yours. Today, I thought I would share two stories I heard recently.

One of our regular patrons is a gentleman who lives in one of the Ottawa Housing buildings near us. He is in almost every day; he knows all the staff members at Rideau by name and chats with us often. He is very interested in Africa: political issues, poverty, social justice, and the genocide in Rwanda; he reads book reviews and often orders books about politics and social policy. I generally avoid talking to patrons for any length of time (more on this later, but the short reason is it's bad customer service, obvs) but somehow, one day, this patron told me that he had a correspondence going with Irwin Cotler.

This week, he came in, bearing several well-worn letters, almost disintegrating at the seams. "Do you remember I told you I wrote to Irwin Cotler? I brought his letters to show you." Sure enough, he had Cotler's responses to his letters, dating back to 2001. The letters signed by Cotler and referring directly to their phone conversations. "You know, one time, I got a little excited on the phone with him, and he said, 'Settle down!'" (he laughs). "I was in Cotler's class, you know," he told me, "at McGill. I had to drop out because of..." (here he makes a vague gesture) "you know, financial difficulties." He reminded Cotler of that on the phone once: "he said I should have spoken with him; he probably could have 'worked something out' for me. Would have been different, eh? I would have been a lawyer!"

Meanwhile, the same day, the husband was doing his regular shift volunteering at the Mission. One of the gentlemen he has struck up an acquaintance with there is also a library patron, so usually we will compare notes; I find him a bit hard to handle, because he's very chatty about his personal life and now that he knows that the guy he's befriended at the Mission is my husband (because the lovely husband picks me up from work when I work evenings!), he wants to ask personal questions, too! Anyway, the long-suffering husband was having another convo with this gentleman when the gentleman inquired, "Hey, are you on Facebook?" (The husband abhors THE FACEBOOK). "Because, you know, it would be good to have you as a contact, you know, via Facebook or something else. Do you have e-mail?" Later in the conversation, this heart-breaking statement: "Well, because, you know me now, but I want you to know me later, too, when things are better."

My mum hates the expression, "There but for the grace of God go I," because it implies that the person being referred to in that observation is lacking God's grace. She's right, it's a self-righteous condescension, but for lack of a better analogy, these little peeks into people's lives remind me, in the midst of to-do lists, monthly reports, inboxes, overloaded book trucks, and storytime, I serve people. And there but for SOMETHING go all of us.

Sometimes people come to the Info desk without a question; sometimes, not having a question is OK. Sometimes my job falls somewhere between my profession and my mother's; sometimes that is OK, too. Sometimes you just have to be still, and listen, for two seconds.

These moments are one of the reasons I stay at Rideau Library, even though I know that they are one of the reasons many people never come to Rideau Library.

*Title above from the Aimee Mann song of the same name. I love this song desperately, and played it on repeat incessantly in the Reference office in the last month before I left Westmount Library, but that's another story.


  1. I love how you mention Irwin Cotler with absolutely no linkage or context. I had to look him up.

    And that line "Well, because, you know me now, but I want you to know me later, too, when things are better" IS absolutely devastating.

    And a good reminder of how incredibly hard it is to ask for help (Cotler saying "you shoulda said something to me".... I hate the word "should" ) -- money has so much shame attached to it, not that I know from personal experience or anything.....

    And yet again, so happy to hear that a member of the clergy hates that God/grace expression. I completely agree with her.

  2. money + shame - hear you. totally.

    haha! i only knew about cotler because his freaking signs used to practically hit me in the face all over cote-st-luc when i worked there and he was running for office. not that i don't think he's an ok guy. i'm just bitter 'cause it's election season here and i had to pull up 2 signs off the library lawn on sat. nothing like brandishing a hammer before noon in public.

  3. Wonderful post, as always. One part that struck me was:
    [snip] Later in the conversation, this heart-breaking statement: "Well, because, you know me now, but I want you to know me later, too, when things are better." [/snip]

    I read that as an optimistic statement. Maybe because I can relate to it a little too well ...

  4. L - and you turned out a superstar, as I said last night to Philip (+ meant it!)