Taking A Hit For Literature

For many, it’s easy to write off a librarian’s job as “nominal.” “Effortless.” “Undemanding,” even. But there is perhaps no more challenging job when the library that one works in is located in a major city. Particularly a major Californian city, where the homeless dare to and delight in making the rooms of the bibliothèque their home away from home (a.k.a. the streets). When Minerva “Vera” Jesubel took on the position at the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library, she had a vague notion that she would be dealing with “riffraff” (a term she only used in her mind, lest she be flogged by San Francisco’s local PC police). But Vera couldn’t have possibly foreseen just how over the top it would all get. For it seemed to her that the library was more of a glorified homeless shelter than an actual library.

In truth, that’s what most libraries had become over the decades since the mid-twentieth century. Once upon a time, they were proverbial “white spaces,” in the era that began from the first library in America’s founding (that being established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731) and all the way up until the mid-1950s when desegregation finally commenced. Now, they were a free-for-all public toilet. Vera had, in fact, gotten into library science as a means to bring integrity back to the institution. She truly believed that it took just one quality, passionate person to start making a difference. And then she started her first day. Not only was she one of only two librarians working the horrifying scene, but she was also placed at the main desk, where the various incoming rabble could see her as a direct line of approach for all their needs. Including a sounding board to unload their drug-addled, incohesive monologues on.

After making it to her apartment on Treat Avenue that night, Vera finally had time to breathe. And to realize that she had been cruelly conned. The branch manager, Belinda, had made it all sound so lovely. And, for whatever reason, on the days she had shown up for her interviews, the homeless population appeared sparse. Hardly noticeable at all. Had they paid off the usual clientele to stay away on the days that Vera was there? She wouldn’t be surprised—how else could the demographic have shifted so abruptly the second she actually started working? It was too uncanny.

But what did it matter now? She had made an agreement, managed to secure a coveted librarian role in a city like San Francisco. Vera wasn’t about to give up so readily. For she had dealt with plenty of homeless patrons during her tenure, as most any librarian had to in the post-war economic climate. This was mostly during her one-year stint at the Sacramento Main Library on I Street. Arguably even “rougher,” at times. Or at least rough enough to warrant a security guard. Eureka Valley had one, too. And they were all much more “trigger happy” (to use a triggering term) with regard to taking action than any of the ones at Sacramento Main. Which was somewhat incongruous considering the hordes of homeless meth heads and opioid addicts that frequented the far larger space of the latter building. Yet perhaps precisely because it was larger, it was actually less observable—the density of homeless people, that is. And certainly helped to air out the general odeur. The smallness of Eureka Valley in comparison made Vera foolishly believe it would somehow make homeless “patrons” more manageable. Instead, it just made them more overwhelming.

In the months that followed, she would have nightmares about them swarming her desk and then climbing over it to start eating her face for sustenance. Their zombie-like, yet rabid nature so ingrained in her mind after being left no choice but to “interface” with them every day in mostly botched attempts at “de-escalation.” Her “pleasant” (through cringed teeth and tensed posture) demeanor wasn’t enough to make them feel seen and heard, so usually, the security guard on duty was involved early on in the interaction. And it wasn’t as though she was being just another “uppity white bitch” when it came to her manner and reaction. Many of the “housed” members of the library admitted, whether in reviews or during news segments, that they did not feel safe most of the time. And that those with children definitely wouldn’t let them go to said library unaccompanied.  

So sure, it was a great “resource” (read: WiFi and bathroom reprieve) for those who needed it on a more desperate level, but it was a hellscape for those who actually wanted use it for its true intent: as a peaceful haven where knowledge could be gleaned. But the only “knowledge” gleaned at Eureka Valley was nothing that the average San Franciscan didn’t know already: wealth disparity is a motherfucker.

And obviously, it wasn’t like the homeless were “bad people.” They were simply people who had been “outside the system” too long and went crazy by “civilized” standards or people who were crazy to begin with by “civilized” standards and had been cast out for one reason or another. Vera wouldn’t have minded their presence, stench and all, were it not for their erratic behavior or the rage they took out arbitrarily on those who were still locked in the matrix. Why should she—or anyone else “like her”—be held responsible for their woes? It was the fault of The System. But then, sometimes she supposed that also meant it was the fault of those who bowed so willingly to The System, making it further indestructible.

The petition of local residents to at least turn the WiFi off at night so that it would “drive them away” (as if) was also met with inaction. Plus, at night, the library looked like one of those Palm Springs houses in the style of Albert Frey. Inviting yet simultaneously “distant” from one’s reach. Something meant to be looked at but not inhabited. A cruel and on-the-nose irony for the homeless outside the building. And yes, they’d managed to turn the bike docks into their own personal power charging station. So who could possibly expect them to leave now? At least, not without a stick of dynamite. For Vera, that meant often considering blowing up the library itself. But there were too many other locations. They would just migrate elsewhere and torture other librarians instead of “disappearing” altogether. And the more Vera had thoughts like these about wanting them to “disappear,” the more self-reproach she felt. But it was starting to become increasingly intermixed with contempt.

She kept resenting the political rhetoric about how libraries were a haven for the homeless, and that they shouldn’t be “chased out” just because they did fentanyl in the bathroom or stank up the joint or generally infected the vibe with their bipolar moods. The liberal politicians would demand, “What about their safety? Their needs?” But what about the safety and the needs of the chumps who thought they paid for those things in taxes? Every day, the library brought up the question of whether or not the haves and the have-nots could truly coexist without conflict. And every day, Vera saw with her own eyes that they could not. That the have-nots were not only a “nuisance” to the haves, but a reminder of the general ugliness of society. That we were all complicit in letting our fellow man live this way. Who was responsible? The pangs of guilt (even if only ephemeral) that most people felt when they saw a homeless person likely meant: everyone.

Vera couldn’t ignore her own part in the dance of capitalism by having a job at all. Least of all one that rendered her as the unwitting Director of the Castro Homeless Shelter. The fucking library. There was no love of literature here. The very reason she had gotten into this “enterprise” in the first place. There was only the use of WiFi and the bathroom as a combination dressing room/“shower” hub/shooting gallery. This was not what Vera had become a librarian for. Not why she had spent years getting a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s in Library Science in the name of her ardor for the written word and being its custodian. Was she naïve for discounting that a large part of her role would be as a “caretaker” of human dregs as opposed to books? Maybe. Nonetheless, she didn’t feel like she deserved to be knifed for her boiling internal opinions about the homeless and the scourge they were on her library.

Being that there was no solution—that the library would never be “rid of” such ilk—maybe this was the only one Vera could be provided with: knifed in a bathroom after walking past the open door of a stall where a homeless man was shitting. Scandalized by her “abrupt” presence (as though presences aren’t expected to come and go in a public restroom), he jumped up, pants still down, grabbed an at-the-ready pocketknife from his backpack and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach like an improperly gutted fish.

For good measure, as he ran out of the stall, he slammed her down against the lid of the unflushed toilet. She would live in homeless shit and die in it, as it were. Taking a hit for literature. But to what end? It’s not as though her death meant anything in the grand scheme of its preservation or a general respect for it that the homeless couldn’t be bothered to show in their state of mental disarray. At the very least, though, the branch did decide to turn the WiFi off at night after that.

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