There are some things that you can’t train for. In any public service job, you know that you will be approached by many different kinds of people. Some have physical disabilities. You don’t have to know all about their condition to help them get the information they need. Some people have mental challenges: they are slower or disabled, and require a different pace to absorb what they hear. Some require step-by-step instruction or aid.
Some have emotional difficulties, everything from going postal to manic depressive to just plain having a bad day. There are certain things we all know: people like to be acknowledged; courtesy goes a long way to bridge gaps between people, and everyone deserves respect. Public service workers and librarians don’t get special psychological training to deal with these challenges. Sometimes you just go on instinct.
One of our many schizophrenic patrons came in. He is a young African-American man, quite tall and somewhat menacing as he stalks rapidly from one end of the library to the other. He mutters under his breath and looks intently at people, until he realizes at some level that they are observing him with alarm. Then he turns and stalks off, until someone else distracts him.
On this day, he came up to the desk and stared at me. This unnerves me as much as the next person. I don’t like being stared at, and the heightened level of the unexpected brings its own anxiety.
He said, “Uh, I have a question. You see, you see, what I want to know is,” - dramatic pause - “why do women love men so much?” He struck a pose – chin in hand, elbow on desk, other fist on his hip – and stared at me, motionless. All twelve inches from my face.
Deep breath. I went with the parenting theory that if they can ask the question, they deserve an answer and start with the simplest.
“I think we’re made that way,” I said. “Women and men go together.” How could I even begin to explain homosexuality, feminism, high divorce rates and everything that negates that statement? No way. Keep it simple, I told myself.
He straightened up. “I think you’re right,” he said. “That’s right.” Whew. Dodged a bullet.
“So, then,” – another dramatic pause – “why do women love ME so much?”
O dear. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t question. I couldn’t run away. He was posed again, staring at me without moving, twelve inches from my face.
I turned to see my coworkers at the desk staring at me, too – no help there. I mean, what DO you say?
I turned back to him, still posed. “I think you should ask the women who love you that question,” I said.
He seemed surprised and his pose unbent. “Oh, uh, maybe you’re right,” he said, straightening up. “Uh, yeah, maybe I’ll try that,” and turned away.
I’m not quite sure what happened there, but I do know this – instinct – and a high five in the back office – can be its own reward.