For the past couple of days I’ve been working a few hours at a local public library. My cellular Internet connection is rather slow in this town, despite good signal. When that happens I usually spend a few hours working in the Airstream and then go to some wi-fi hotspot for broadband. Public libraries are often good for that, and sometimes even have handy desks with power outlets. You can’t get a hot chai and a muffin like you can at Panera Bread, but on the other hand the library is usually quieter.
The local library here has a ring of wooden desks, five of which have computers, and one empty desk for people like me who bring their own computer. From my spot I have a view of all five other library patrons, and they have a view of me. It’s something like the old fashioned “wagon wheel” parking that they used to do at the Airstream rallies in the 1950s.
This means I have front-row seat for all of the little dramas that play out at the library’s computers. Many of the people who borrow the computers don’t have their own, which means they have painfully little experience and are often flustered. Some ask the library staff for help, which is competently and helpfully given. Other patrons are more demonstrative. A boy who was working at a computer with his father kept running into some sort of problem, and each time his (computer illiterate) father said, “What’s wrong?” the boy responded with statements such as: “This computer sucks,” and “This is crap.” Lovely boy. Although, I do have to admit some sympathy: he was working with Windows.
Shortly after, an amazingly curvaceous woman plopped herself down at a computer and began to act out the definition of “drama queen,” through a series of loud sighs and explosive monosyllables. From the very moment she touched the keyboard she was emoting her deep dissatisfaction with whatever the Internet was delivering, with “HUH??” “UHHHHH” “WOOOOF” “WHA??” and “SHEESH”. Each outburst was accompanied by a quick look around to see if she’d gotten anyone’s attention, and who amongst the other five diligent computer users would dare to look in her direction. At her first Emmy-worthy moment of self-expression, I made the mistake of looking and was rewarded with a look that said, “Come over and solve my life’s problems for me.” It’s the sort of look that guys fall for in bars, and come to regret soon after. I ducked back down to my laptop screen and wished that I was wearing a large wedding ring.
But she was nothing compared to the tweens. By mid-afternoon, the middle school let out, and suddenly every desk was occupied by a 12-year-old girl who desperately needed to view Justin Bieber videos. The one to my left was particularly enamored of Justin, literally grabbing the sleeve of anyone who walked by and exhorting them to watch. “Justin Bieber! He’s so cute. Look!” and then “Justin Bieber — he’s such a good actor.” A minute later, a new victim: “Justin Bieber — he’s going to be on CSI! He’s so cute.” And again to another innocent, “Justin Bieber, he’s such a good actor.” Over and over again she watched Justin’s video clips and repeated her mantra, “He’s so cute. He’s such a good actor,” her eyes misty with the sort of adolescent crush that is driven by hormones and exceptionally bad judgment.
With all these distractions it is very difficult to work. Once one’s concentration is broken, it’s easy to notice the other minor distractions: the “sniffer” who will never blow his nose but just keep snorking up a giant wad of snot over and over; the child who keeps whispering, “Mommy, when are we leaving?” while Mom desperately tries to finish her tasks at the computer; and of course, the cacophony of cell phones.
You see, even though we’re in the library, nobody wants to miss a call. So they leave their phones on. Then, when they get a call they can see the caller ID and … ignore it. So every fifteen minutes or so, another cell phone rings. Of course, this is the era of custom ringtones, so they don’t really ring. What we get is a random sampling of Americana as interpreted by Verizon. It’s interesting to see what people choose as their custom ringtones. I would never have guessed THAT woman as someone who would pick “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones as her ringtone. There are birds chirping, steel drum bands, and a wide assortment of 1980’s pop rock right here in the library, and you never know what tune is coming next.
So there we are, all sitting and diligently typing or clicking, when the latest random sound appears. Somebody in the wagon wheel desperately begins ransacking pockets and purses in an attempt to find the phone, locates the Mute button, and then glances at the Caller ID. “Ah, so it’s him trying to reach me,” they seem to think, and then put the phone away secure in the knowledge that they have screened the call. Their task was more important, so they’ve “won.”
But alas, victory is fleeting, because about half the time the caller knows they’ve been screened, and so … they call again. Not 30 seconds after the first blast of “YMCA” by The Village People, and the resulting guilty look*, it is back. Will the offender turn off the phone this time? Not a chance. Now it gets opened and the stage-whisper conversation begins:
“Hello? … Oh, it’s probably on the back porch … Uh, try the closet …. No, the one by the kitchen … Well, ask Bobby if he moved it … Don’t forget you need to be ready to go to the dentist at 4 … When will you be back? … OK …”
And then, the classic comment, once the conversation begins to wane: “I can’t talk. I’m at the library.”
* TIP: If you secretly love disco and don’t want anyone to know, don’t choose Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” as your ringtone.