The Cost of a Book

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.

21 thoughts on “The Cost of a Book

  1. Adrienne — a tricky issue for everybody. It’s normal human “load-balancing” to be selective about what to attend to at a given moment, especially when it requires the heart’s as well as the head’s participation. (There’s also the awareness that to help ONE is likely to invite the attention of others — maybe many others — in the same situation, just because informal communities (like the homeless) naturally share how-to-live information with one another.)

    I think you took absolutely the right path here, balancing compassion — simple decency — with common sense.

  2. I am guilty of being too much in my head sometimes and not seeing the truth in front of me.

    Ah. Indicted and also found guilty here.

    No matter how long it took you, you did see. You did act. And now your antennae are up.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote about this as it is weighing heavy on my mind still. So many people see homelessness as something that could never happen to them or here in Henrietta. Most homeless people are not “bad” and they didn’t do something to deserve the situation they are in. Because of this wonderful lady, I have a new perspective. I hate that she died before she was resettled into a new life, with a new home but I am glad she found us and we found her.

  4. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I learned some things from my experience of this woman’s story and felt like it shouldn’t die along with her.

    Thanks, John. I can’t solve all the problems of the world, which is something I’ve learned from trying to do it a lot and irritating people in the process. It’s still kind of my instinct, but I’ve also been learning to trust more that the work that I do connecting people with information and stories is what I have to give and is valuable, even if it doesn’t have the results I’d hope for or I never get to see the results. It’s about meeting people where they are, openness, and sharing. And where the heck else do people find that in life? Libraries are kind of it.

    Tanita, The trick is staying aware, you know? It takes effort. I need to keep thinking about some of our policies, too, and how I’m communicating them to our staff. There have to be some better ways.

  5. You were commenting while I was, Cathy. :) I agree about homelessness entirely. It’s so easy to try to turn these stories into ones where people deserve what happens to them, but I think people just do that because it’s so terrifying to think such a thing could happen to one’s own self.

    I was sad, too, that she didn’t get into a more settled situation before she died. I kept thinking that it would happen for her just because she had such a good attitude. It was a real shock that she died. It still seems possibly not real.

  6. I too have a different perspective on the homeless after meeting and talking with this patron. She would recommend titles she had read and was always upbeat despite her situation.

  7. That part of her was remarkable to me, Nancy. Like I feel like I am a total nightmare if I am just a little tired and hungry, but she was at once in no denial about her situation and also completely serene. That is so admirable to me. It makes me wonder, too, how many people we might be seeing regularly who may be in similar circumstances, and we just have no idea.

    You were especially kind to her, too. Everyone was. I am so proud of our library being what it is.

  8. I just wanted to say thanks for writing this, Adrienne. You broadened my perspective. And I agree with Tanita that what matters is not the 2 weeks that it took you, but that you took positive action in the world. You and the others from your library should be proud of yourselves.

  9. This is both sad and beautiful at the same time. Her homelessness, illness, and death all sad of course. That she found shelter in your library and was able to retain her dignity and find comfort in a place full of books is beautiful and inspiring in its own way. Thanks for sharing her story and reminding us of how important it is to remain open, aware, and giving.

  10. Sweet. Thank you for sharing this. It is tales like this that may help jar many civil servants out of their bureaucratic stiffness, and see reality.
    It is sad she passed, but good you see your fears.
    You can’t live in fear, and doing something about it, just elevated you above 9 tenths of the population’s blindness effectuated by living within tiny boundaries…..

    You used pithy. I had to look that up. We’ll have words over that one.

  11. What a heart warming story,and how insightful you were in dealing with her.The world could use more caring,helpful people like you and the staff at Henrietta Library. You helped to make her last weeks comforting and warm,knowing that regardless of her lack of a home,you cared enough to trust her.Beautiful story Adrienne,as I’ve said before I love the way you write!

  12. Thanks all, for reading and taking the time to comment. I felt nervous about posting this and tinkered with it for a week before I decided it was a story I was going to share.

    Dennis, I don’t really know how to balance humanity and compassion with some of the demands of being a civil servant and administrator, but I feel like I need to try. I don’t want to be a person or run an organization that actively makes people’s lives more difficult.

  13. Lovely Adrienne – the last time I helped her she wanted to find a shelter for women where she could volunteer when she was settled. Which shows what kind of person she was…

  14. Wowowow. what a great reminder to get out of our heads and be compassionate and sympathetic to everyone’s story. do you know what happened to her cats?

  15. I don’t know what happened to the cats, though there was another family member around, and I am pretty sure they will be taken good care of. That REALLY mattered to this woman, for sure.

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  17. Adrienne,

    “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.”

    Sometimes, life doesn’t provide us with pithy or uplifting conclusions. To be sure, our world is full of terrible things. You gave this woman respect and the opportunity to read books that may have helped to sustain her spirit while she was alive. Good for you! I wish there were millions more people like you in this world.

  18. Adrienne,

    I didn’t get a chance to read this until now…but this is what inspired you to create that library card you mentioned to me the day of the race, isn’t it? What a wonderful idea. And if it helps someone else in need, that is a beautiful thing. We can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but sometimes I feel like if we can make things a bit easier for someone, it might go a long way.

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