Growing up in India, I never dreamt in a million years that one day I would be living in America and working at the reference desk of a public library. Life unfolds in unexpected ways or maybe it was always destiny’s plan, but here I am, in the southeast, enjoying every minute of helping people find information and also observing the vivid displays of interesting interactions which occur at the library.
People are always curious about where I come from and it is really endearing when some people start the conversation with a Namaste, complete with folded hands and bowed down heads. They ask me if I am Hindi and if I speak Hindu and it is always funny to me because I am Hindu and I speak Hindi! One lady asked me if I put Chameli (a flower similar to Jasmine) oil in my hair and I was flabbergasted that she even knew about that since most people just know about coconut oil. Another woman told me that I looked like Nikki Haley (Governor of South Carolina, whose parents are from India) and I was so flattered!
Last year, a middle aged Caucasian gentleman came up to me and told me that he was a big fan of Priyanka Chopra (Bollywood heroine) and followed her on Twitter. Since then, whenever he visits the library, he stops by to chat about the gorgeous Priyanka and I update him on all the gossip about her from the Indian tabloids. He knows her whereabouts and he got really excited last year in April when she visited Tampa for the IIFA awards. I find it amusing that he pronounces her name Pri- yank (as in the word yank) –a. He is so earnest that he wants to learn the correct Hindi pronunciation and he tries but fails.
My face is a dead giveaway of my nationality but once in a while someone will come up to the desk and flood me with a barrage of Spanish complete with animated hand movements and intermittent laughs and giggles only to be cut short by my curt response of “Sorry, I do not know any Spanish” and they will give me a confused look as though they are thinking “Chica, are you kidding me? I could have sworn you were a Latina!”
Sometime back, I was on the phone answering a reference question and the person on the other end was intrigued by my accent. He asked me if I was French and it gave me such a thrill, sounding European sounds so exotic and uber fancy to me.
The best part of my job is that every day I get to learn something new. A lady called me on the phone with the description of a small bird which is brown in color but has some red on its head and under the neck. I asked her if it was a Robin and she said the bird is smaller in size. “Could it be a hummingbird?” I thought aloud, only to be rudely silenced by her saying that the bird she saw is not that small. After giving her many options like a Cardinal, Woodpecker, Blackbird with some red on it etc., I finally figured that it could be a Red Finch and as soon as I said that, her voice took an excited pitch and she screamed to her husband “It’s a Finch, I got it, It’s a Red Finch” and then she thanked me profusely and put the phone down. It was quite exhilarating to help her come to that conclusion!
A young girl came to the desk the other day and asked me if I could find books on light workers. I asked her if she was looking for books on people who worked with lights like Electricians and she started laughing. Then, she told me that a Light worker is a human being dedicated to the cultivation of inner presence and the elevation of awareness in self and other selves. I had never heard that term before but I did help her find some Internet sources on that topic.
Reference books on religion are researched a lot. Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the Koran and the Bible has always been widely read and interpreted. Sometimes, people remember a passage from the Bible and want to know which book and verse it came from which is not hard to find, thanks to Google. Long back, an old lady came to me and said “Honey, Are you Christian?” and I told her that I was not but I did respect Jesus. She told me in a concerned and quivering voice “You are so sweet, do become a Christian, I do not want you to burn in hell.” I shook my head and smiled and thought “What if I was sour?” I told her that she should not worry about me as I will be fine. I have not read the religious texts in depth but I do know in my heart that I am a good person and I have not committed any crimes and so there is no logical reason why I would be banished to the fires of hell.
Mentally ill people visit the library too and we treat them with courtesy and respect. A lady calls me Ruth (a noble woman from the Bible) and refuses to call me by my real name. There is this patron who is always wearing a helmet, even inside the library. I do not know the reason behind it but I am guessing that he could be scared of getting an injury to his head. To a normal mind, the idea seems preposterous but in his mind the fear is real and therefore worthy of taking precaution. My heart goes out to people who suffer from mental disorders. In our society, we offer so much help and support to people suffering from physical diseases like cancer or diabetes but for those who are tortured by their own minds and suffer from anxiety or depression, we do not extend the same compassion.
Sometimes, an incident happens at the library and it teaches me a life lesson. Few years back, on a Tuesday evening, two women got into an argument while using the public computers and one of them attacked the other with a box cutter. We called security and they came to the scene immediately and separated them. Our security workers are the best and they are really skilled at their job. One woman was bleeding profusely from her forehead where the box cutter had taken a swipe and it was quite shocking to witness the whole event. The lady who used the box cutter was jailed.
It made me a little upset as the fight was initiated by the woman who went scot free. She was in a mood to argue and pick a fight and she was constantly heckling and provoking the other woman who could not take it anymore and decided to leave. While she was leaving, the other woman threatened to beat her outside and that is when she snapped and took out the box cutter. The moral of the story for me was that in situations like these you have to keep your cool and walk away, using violence only gets you into trouble, nobody cares about who started the fight, they only see who got hurt and they punish the person who inflicted that wound. Let me add that the library is a very safe place and incidents like these are extremely rare.
Changing gears, on a lighter note, I am reminded of a library patron who looks like Sean P Diddy. He dresses in very fashionable long coats, well-tailored pants, sunglasses, lots of bling and he walks with a swagger as though he is a millionaire. The other day, a man asked me for paper scissors and I told him that the rule was that he could not take the scissors anywhere and he had to use it right there at the reference desk well within my view. I thought he wanted to cut some paper, but to my surprise, he took the scissors towards his face and feeling alarmed, I asked, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I just want to trim my moustache.” I said, “No, no, you are not allowed to do that at the library, please return the scissors immediately!” Thankfully, he did return the scissors and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The reference desk sagas are never ending. All of these stories are real, I cannot make this up. I get to help people in their quest for knowledge and I also get to observe them with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies! Some hours at the desk can be a little dull and slow but more often than not there is plenty of mental stimulation and excitement going on, all in a day’s work!
(Post written in a pre covid time long long ago!)