We had a regular patron at the library who was for a long time living with her cats in her car. She was friendly and open about it, so we all knew. When staff members started bringing the situation up to me, asking if there was something we should do, I kept saying we should stay out of it. She hadn’t asked for our help, so we should leave her alone. She did want a library card, though–a stickier issue, since she didn’t have an address, and we aren’t supposed to issue cards to people who don’t have addresses. The woman was accepting, though, and got in the habit of coming in during the day and reading a book in the library. When she left, she’d ask us to set aside her book at the desk so she could pick it back up when she came in the next day. I guess she’d been doing this a couple weeks before I met her myself, when she asked me to set aside the novel she was reading. Instead of doing that, though, I checked the book out on my own card and gave it to her to take out overnight. I told her she could keep it as long as she needed to.
I am not proud of myself for doing this. After almost 20 years of librarianship, I had to take some time to consider whether a $20 book was worth more than this woman’s comfort. I have long nights sometimes here in my lovely apartment, where I am safe, secure, and comfortable. I can’t imagine the length of a night trying to sleep in your car when you have no idea when you might ever get to sleep somewhere else.
I know little of this woman’s life, but the facts I know were that for many months, she was a model citizen of the library. She came in every day, used our facilities well, was a pleasure to talk to, and did not cause trouble, other than her homelessness made people uncomfortable. However uncomfortable her situation might have made her, every time I talked to her, she was smiling and cheerful. Other staff members figured out how I’d checked a book out to this woman on my card, and so some of them were checking books out to her on our internal hold shelf card. I’d heard that someone brought in food for her pets, and I heard about it when she found out she had lung cancer.
One of my colleagues also came and let me know when she died. I’ve continued looking for her in the library since I got the news, like maybe this was a clerical error or I got confused about reality. I go straight to denial when someone dies.
Anyway, somehow this woman managed to get a surgery scheduled to deal with her cancer–whatever else was true of her, she had pluck–and she died of complications from the surgery. She was maybe in her 60s and probably not in the best shape for major surgery after months of living in her car. I am proud that our library was a source of comfort and safety to her in the last months of her life rather than a source of additional turmoil, but I remain troubled. We talk in libraries about this or that thing we need to do to remain relevant, but there is such power in the basic act of offering someone the stories and information they need. There is hope in that. People find comfort, understanding, and paths forward–and it is so important that they have the opportunity to find their own paths forward. I believe everyone deserves the basics–food, shelter, health care, respect–but I also know that people have to seek and struggle and work to feel okay about themselves and the world.
Still, even knowing all that, it took me two weeks to really see this woman, internalize her situation, and make a choice that felt radical even though it should be exactly what we do, no question. I surround myself with books and podcasts. I love reading and listening to other people’s stories, but how many stories have I missed that were standing right in front of me? How many projects did I get so involved in that I failed to notice my opportunity to help a human being I could look in the eye? I am guilty of being too much in my head sometimes and not seeing the truth in front of me. Much as I am in this business to help people–and I am, wholeheartedly–sometimes I see people as problems to be solved when I should be slowing down and paying a lot more attention to what is actually happening.
Also, this woman was everything I am afraid of, which is part of why I had such trouble seeing her in the first place. I wonder how often this happens, too.
I don’t have a pithy uplifting conclusion here. This woman lived in her car for a long time, she got cancer, and she died. This world is full of terrible things. I give people stories.