I provide audio for as much of my work as I can. Some posts lend themselves particularly well to oral storytelling. This is one of them. Give it a listen by pressing play on the blue bar above and then put your phone down. Enjoy the words without the glare of a screen. Let me know what you thought of the listening experience in the comments!
He carries the constitution in his pocket.
It’s a handheld edition with pages worn down on the edges, paper aged to a yellow that reveals a print date of at least thirty years ago. I am not yet thirty, or even twenty nine.
The first time I met the man at the library, the constitution escaped my notice.The old men at the library can blend together. Most of them call me “sweetie” and suggest that a nice young man helped them yesterday, and was he available? At first, my title一technology specialist一intimidated me. Now I realize that my expertise in finding Yahoo.com and pointing out the print icon are what set me apart as a specialist.
I collected my own catalog of regulars, people I could count on seeing every day.
And so I didn’t notice the constitution in his pocket at first. I don’t remember our first interactions. Early in my tenure, everybody was just someone showing up to use the library this once. As the weeks wore on, I collected my own catalog of regulars, people I could count on seeing every day. This man一the one with the Preamble over his heart一I see every day.
Now I know his habits. He will try to catch my eye with a raised hand and a nod before making his way to the information desk. He is old and it hurts for him to move, I can see it in the way he pumps his arms as he walks and by the way his cheeks puff out repeatedly with exhaled breath when he reaches the top of the stairs.
“Do you have a minute?” He says this every time too.
He indicated a highlighted portion of text on his screen. Above the darkened words are the repeated indentations characteristic of forwarded emails. This particular forward delineates the number and cost of each first lady’s staff. Mamie Eisenhower, for example, had only one assistant. First ladies before Mamie paid for staffers out of their own pocket books.
“Can you fit it to one page?” He held his pointer finger up. He always holds his pointer finger up.
“We’ll see what I can do.”
White stubble covers his face, never quite growing into a beard, but holding the shape of one. The angles of his face render a soft countenance and he has a twinkle in his blue eyes that makes him seem like the sort of character in a movie you find out later was actually an angel or a ghost一”What do you mean you helped a man sitting at that computer?” my costar in the film would say, “There hasn’t been anyone there all day.”
Of particular note to the email writer is the wife of president Obama. I hold my cursor over the beginning of the article and click as I re-highlight the text. I reach the very last sentence where it notes of Michelle: “There has never been anyone in the White House at any time that has created such an army of staffers whose sole duties are the facilitation of the First Lady’s social life. One wonders why she needs so much help, at taxpayer expense, when even Hillary, only had three; Jackie Kennedy one; Laura Bush one; and prior to Mamie Eisenhower social help came from the President’s own pocket.”
He wanted a copy of this to keep with him. I noticed two reusable grocery bags on either side of his feet. Both are filled with stacks of paper: printouts like this one, and others too, photocopies of old newspapers, musical scores, and reproductions of patriotic documents.
“Excuse my reach,” I said.
He adjusted his baseball cap as he scooted back from the desk to give me space. I stretched my arm to hit keyboard shortcuts with pinky and pointer finger: copy, paste. He watched as the text of the email populated the word document I opened. The text sprawled across several pages. I changed the margins to 0.5 inches, but the print still took up two pages. I worked my Microsoft magic and changed the line spacing and font size. I scanned the piece for extra blank lines, moving fast and feeling sad.
In the back office the following week, I joked with my colleagues that training should include a session on how to fit a racist email to one page. I’ve gotten quite a bit of traction with this particular bit, but I tell it every time like it’s just coming to mind.
Today John makes it all the way to my desk before I notice him–I heard another patron call him John last week. I confess, I don’t exactly like to be summoned to computers, but I don’t mind so much with him, because he is feeble. That he made it to my desk means he limped the whole way, leading with his right leg and quickly dragging the left behind. Using his gait as a map, I’ve pinpointed his pain somewhere around his left hip.
We make the trip back to his console. The front page of Yahoo News announces something Trump did this week. The man clicks on a tile somewhere below the main article and pulls up a piece about a fat black actress who chides celebrity tabloids for noting her weight loss. This falls outside John’s normal requests. God, is his name John? I’m almost positive it’s John.
“Fit it to one page?” I ask trying to race him to his catchphrase. I’m actually just thrilled that the current screen does not display a World War I conspiracy theory or a meme telling Germany how Texans would deal with Muslim rapists on their turf.
“No,” he says, “I just want the picture.”
I help him print the picture.
I cry at my desk.
A blue vinyl suitcase leans against the chair, an item more suited to an overnight trip in 1960 than to hold a life.
I saw him crossing the tracks on his bike a couple days ago. He balanced multiple bags on the handlebars as rain fell soaking his baseball cap and the shoulders of his unbuttoned oxford.
He summons me over to his computer, where the screen displays another email forward. He scrolls past the records of who has sent it, some without comment, others with encouragements for their friends to enjoy the email. “Great stuff,” someone in the chain proclaims. Another sender says, “These are hilarious.”
The email is entitled “Old Soldiers.” Someone compiled a group of memes with various generals and notable military personnel. I confess I only recognize General Patton, since he gets mentioned in our family lore. My great uncle Willard served under his command in Europe. When Willard got back, he cut off communication with my Grandma who was dating a second generation German immigrant in Chicago.
“Can you fit all these to one page?” He raises his pointer finger.
But this particular set of memes will take more than my usual copy and paste routine if I want to keep it to his one-page, ten-cent budget.
“Excuse my reach,” I say as he rolls back his chair to give me room to work.
Copy. My opinion of Barack Obama, He’s an un-wiped ass. Paste.
Copy. I want peace, I just have to kill some people first. Paste.
Copy. When your men get home and face an anti-war protester, look at him the eyes and shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend, because she know she’s dating a pussy. Paste.
Today he wears the freedom of speech in the pocket of a blue button up shirt. The sleeves bunch in tidy rolls at his elbow and he wears it unbuttoned over a tucked in t-shirt. A small cow skull hangs around his neck affixed to a leather bolo tie.
“That’s clever,” he says, watching me adjust the sizing on the images. I’m working hard, using Publisher to piece the memes together, finding the arrangement that makes them fit. My palms sweat trying to finish before I say something or cry.
“Is it ok if they overlap?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says swatting the air to dismiss my worry, “Just as long as I can see the words.”
Last night, he came to the library wearing a short sleeve tropical shirt. The red fabric set off white hibiscus flowers dancing down his back and across his chest, even right over the constitution. He still carried his blue traveling case, and it reminded me of the Genie in Aladdin at the end of the movie as he levitates off to Disney World.
I decided that I want to be the type of person that asks this man what he’s doing
I’ve resolved to ask him what he’s working on, to find out about his magnum opus. I see so many large projects in process at the library. I play my small part in helping people finish resumes, short stories, Facebook profiles, and tax documents. I can tell all the papers in his bags add up to something important to him, and yesterday I decided that I want to be the type of person that asks this man what he’s doing–someone who listens to opposing viewpoints. But I don’t ask.
I almost get the words out of my mouth twice. He’s so kind to me in comparison to many patrons, I imagine that the conversation would go well enough. But I realize I’m not sure what I’d say back, what I could say back if I heard him say aloud in a calm, reasonable voice the sort of words I read in his emails.
When I walk out of the library after closing, he is sitting on the bench outside with friends: the widowed physicist and the guy who spits chewing tobacco into empty Gatorade bottles. I should say “goodbye,” or “have a good evening,” since I see them more than my own family. Head down, I walk towards the staff parking lot.
I’ll see him tomorrow.
Music in Audio version by Jake Dragash