The Citizen Enforcers

March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

There’s a library I like to go to, but I have trouble there sometimes. I think fascists run the place. At the very least, it attracts Manhattan’s most puritanical thinkers. This library has so many rules, and so many citizen enforcers, that sometimes I worry I’m breathing too loudly. And I’m not one of those people who wheezes through her nose, in case that’s what you were thinking.

I get chided on the regular. Just today, and last week, too. I accidentally transgress about every third visit. For background, here are some of the basic rules: you’re not allowed to have food anywhere in the library, nor can you bring in drinks, except water, which you must keep at your feet. No cell phones, either: not in the stairs, not in the halls, not anywhere.

My first embarrassment came about a month ago. I am a nursing mother, and I need to eat. This library is far enough away from my home that I will most definitely require a snack while I am working, just to get back home. Also, it has been freezing outside. This is not the kind of whether where you can take your apple to the park and enjoy it in the sunshine.

Anyway, sometime in February, I came in to do some writing while my Mom watched Max and the dog at her apartment, a few blocks away. While I was working a blizzard ensued, and I knew that if I was going to push the boy in the bassinet all the way home in sub-artic temperatures with ice and sleet and snow falling, I’d need to up my reserves. So I went to the bathroom and unwrapped a soft, chewy granola bar. I brought it back to my seat in the communal writing room and broke off tiny pieces under the table. I am not exaggerating when I say that I produced not a sound.

But, one wizened patron must have noted the movement of my jaw from across the room, and watched me for a while. As I was lifting a bite to my mouth, she came over to my table, smiling in that superior I’m about to get you in trouble, little girl, kind of way. Norma, a warty teacher at Montessori school used to look at me like that before putting me in the ‘thinking chair.’ In fact, this lady looked a lot like Norma: Thai fisherman pants, clogs, a flowing silk blouse and beads all around her wrinkly neck. When she came to me, she was sure to come prepared. In her hand, the sheet of paper, reiterating the rules that are also written—aggressively, in all caps—on little menu cards placed on each table. She set this paper down in front of me and smiled. FOOD, DRINK, AND CELL PHONE USE PROHIBITED THROUGHOUT THE LIBRARY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION.

“There’s no eating in here,” she whispered. “I don’t know if you know that,” this was a blow, because the little menu card was quite obviously 5 inches in front of me. I nodded, silently, chewing, turning red. “Thank you,” I said, for lack of a more creative response. When I left shortly thereafter, I realized what I should have said. “And there’s no talking, either.” Because just a few minutes earlier, this hag had been giggling with another professorial old fart in their corner of the communal room. Had I stood up and brought them the rules? No, I had not. Nevertheless, I walked home feeling ashamed. I wished I’d dropped my granola bar wrapper on her books as I’d walked out, although that would have been quite aggressive. Still, I spent most of the day shaking the feeling that I’d broken a serious, communal code and that I was a social pariah. (Yes, I am a sensitive person.)

But I also felt frustrated: where does this need for persnickety, finger-wagging come from? Does a young woman silently and discreetly eating a granola bar—obviously intent on doing so without chomping or drooling—really affect the quality of the work environment? It would be one thing to bring a bag of carrot sticks or potato chips, or to smack on a stick of gum. But this seemed like rule tending for the thrill of it. In the end, I was the victim, I decided.

As it so happens, the second hag was recently at me about my cell phone. I was sending a quiet text to the babysitter regarding her question on reheating milk. Although the phone was muted, I accidentally pressed the ‘dictate’ button on my message app, which resulted in a tiny ping. The woman whipped her gray head around at me, and peered over her spectacles, “No cell phones, please,” she whispered caustically. “I know,” I said. Rolling my eyes as I looked back at my computer, but feeling a hot flush of shame on my neck nonetheless.

The next day, I accidentally sat too close to this second citizen enforcer again, not realizing that the heap of manila folders and the keyboard lift all belonged to her. (I’d set myself up while she was in the bathroom, and I guarantee you, I will avoid sitting near to these objects in the future.) This woman really treats the place like her private office. A gentlemen behind me—obviously new to the joint—had not muted his computer, so every email he received or sent went in or out with a Ding! From the corner of my eye, I watched the citizen enforcer bristle at every chime. Finally, she craned her head at me and whispered, “Is that your computer?” She assumed, naturally, that because my device made a single sound yesterday, that I was causing today’s technological symphony. I turned to her with my bitchiest stare and said, “No. It is not.” What I was really saying was, “Keep to yourself, you XXXX.”

I’ve seen these ladies give death stares to individuals who take too long to unpack their belongings, or who rustle their manuscripts and legal pads a little too fervently. When either of these citizen enforcers is in the room, I am literally terrified that a youtube video will spontaneously play itself on my computer, and that I will wither and wilt into nothing. As an aside, neither of these women appears to realize that keys on a keyboard don’t have to be attacked in order to make words appear on the screen. I’m considering petitioning the librarians to add to the rules list: NO HEAVY HANDED TYPING ALLOWED.           

I know they would, because there are an untold number of additional rules in place to protect the sanctity of the place. Just this morning, I took my snack downstairs, out of the library doors. There I sat, in the cold marbled vestibule where people sometimes make cell phone calls. I assumed that if call-making was allowed, then quiet eating would also be acceptable. After a few minutes, when I was just about finished, one of the staff members approached me and said, “Miss, you are not allowed to sit on the stairs.” “Really?” I asked, incredulously. “Can I stand on the stairs?” “Yes, you may stand on the stairs.” So I stood on the stairs, but bent over so that I could look at a magazine I’d brought with me. I hoped that standing on my feet would satisfy the rules book, which I assume was designed to prevent patrons from loitering. Next time, I will try hanging out for an hour or two in a squat position to see what happens.

But I am still here. Probably because I have a heroine, whose defiance of the code gives me such joy that I come back, hoping to see her in action again. This lady is a very old lady—much older than the citizen enforcers. Her hair is absolutely white, her shoulders are deeply bent and she’s quite deaf. She was having computer problems last week and asked—out loud, imagine—for help with her laptop. A small Chinese man came to her aid, and they sat and troubleshooted together. (Neither of the citizen enforcers was in the room.) After about thirty minutes, one patron approached and said politely, “No talking please,” which seemed fair given the length and volume of their conversation. She nodded and took her helper into the hallway.

When she returned, the old lady blew my mind. This woman unwrapped a chocolate bar, right there in her chair, right in front of the bossy menu card (!) and started to snack, unabashedly in her seat. And all I could think was, “You go, girlfriend, you go.”  Is there anything as fun an old lady breaking all the rules? 

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