The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES: Noise in the high decibel range came from the back of the library the other day, as it is wont to do nowadays, a lot more noise than the your average library staffer usually hears from the back of your average public library. Once upon a time, of course, public libraries were always quiet and decorous places, places where the seeker after truth and wisdom could sit and read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, learn how to fix a rotary engine, or reflect on the stylistic devices used in the Attic Old Comedy as employed in the later works of Aristophanes, and could do so content in the knowledge that any boorish lout seeking to disrupt the decorum of the place would instantly bring down upon themselves the wrath of the librarians, a stern breed of women quick with a significant glare or a shush or a quiet, please, sir, spoken in so cold a tone of voice it could easily freeze the soul of even the most obstreperous side of beef. Those days are gone now, unfortunately, gone the way of all flesh, leaving us in a crass world in which public libraries are not as loud as construction area blasting zones, but only because so few people choose to bring high explosives into public libraries. I’m sure if someone gave the idea any degree of thought we’d have fireworks displays in the stacks here morning, noon, and night, and most of the patrons probably wouldn’t notice the noise at all.

We did, however, notice this particular set of squeals, screeches, shouts, and shrieks, if for no other reason than it bore more than a passing acquaintance to someone conducting a human sacrifice in the children’s area. Clearly, the staff needed to restore order in that area, and as I drew the short straw I was the best man to restore the status quo antemunchkin. I trod slowly back towards the children’s area, rushing being inconsistent with the dignity of the public library as an institution, and then scurried back behind the front desk to put my shoes on, as wandering around this egregious mold pit in my stocking feet is equally inconsistent with the dignity of the public library as an institution, perhaps even more so, since I never got around to sewing up that hole in the right toe. Once properly shod, however, I advanced towards the children’s area, where the noise continued unabated, with a firm yet ominous step, each heavy footfall laden with portent and Thermidorean reaction, as I pressed forward to quell the Terror that walketh by day, although a Terror that walketh by day wouldn’t seem all that terrible, it seems to me, unless the terror worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Otherwise the Terror that walketh by day would just seem like any other pedestrian you see walkething from hither to yon pale river because they can’t find a place to park their car.

Upon my arrival in the children’s area, an event that went unnoticed by everyone, I immediately ascertained that the source of the noise was a large group of schoolchildren celebrating the arrival of summer by clubbing one other into unconsciousness with large print copies of the Harry Potter books. Some of the smaller and more easily concussed children lay on the floor to one side of the main bout, waiting for the repo man to collect their wits for them before returning to the fray. I stood there a moment, surveying the extent of the mayhem and satisfying myself that for all the screaming no one was actually bleeding all over our freshly shampooed carpet, and then announced, “excuse me, people," in as loud and menacing tone of voice as I could muster. To which one of the ringleaders of this donnybrook quickly announced, “it wasn’t me, it was them,” as if I hadn’t been standing there watching her bludgeon a small boy over the head several times with a much worn hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I must admit that the impact of this brazen claim almost stunned me into insensibility. I mean, are there really adults stupid enough to believe such a claim? For me to give this child’s claim any credence whatsoever I would have to ignore the evidence of my senses, to disregard the years of experience I have acquired in dealing with this sort of situation, and to place this disturbance into some other intellectual framework wherein I could call this something other than what it was. And the child looked at me as if what she was asking me to do were the most natural thing in the world and not an activity designed to cause a cerebrovascular infarct in laboratory rats. I stared at the child for a moment, disbelieving my ears, and then said, are you nuts? The child looked somewhat surprised that her excuse had not gone over with the grace of an obese ballerina in work boots, and a moment later her nonplussed expression became one of sheer disbelief when I told her that she and her cohorts in cacophony had to leave the library. Her eyes opened wide and she reiterated her noninvolvement in the proceedings, to which I countered with a devastatingly witty, yeah, right, now leave the building.

After she trooped out of the building with her fellow mayhemistas, leaving in a huff and a snit, I sat and mulled for a while, mulling being a skill much sought after in the civil service, as opposed to moving, especially moving quickly and not in triplicate, which is not a skill very prized at all amongst civil servants, the implications of the child’s faux cries of innocence. I wondered as I mulled; I can do this, but only because I’ve taken the necessary courses and done the required lab work—please do not try this at home or without the proper safety equipment in close proximity—why the child would tell such a whopper, and such an old and easily disproved one at that. I told the same fib to a teacher in 1965 and it didn’t work for me then, either; in fact, I came out the worse for wear, what with a ruler laid across the knuckles of both hands—the nuns didn’t stand for that such nonsense back then; Vatican II was all very well and good, but the old guard and their tried and true methods still ruled the schools. I suppose what surprised me most was that any child in this day and age would use such a hackneyed excuse. Has there been no progress in excuse making since I was making excuses?

It hardly seems possible that in this day and age, when the events and culture of schoolchildren of 1965 are one with Nineveh and an old Tyre with worn out treads that your father picked up at the junkyard all those years ago just because he might need it someday, that children’s excuses would not have moved forward with the times, but it appears, at least from my vantage point, that that is in fact the case. I don’t understand this; children and the youth culture generate most of the progress in the information and media revolutions American society has experience in the past decade or so, and it’s a well-known fact that the best way to fix a broken computer without spending a fortune on a repairman is to step outside and snag the first passing nine year old you happen to see. This method is almost always successful and has saved our library thousands of dollars in computer repair and maintenance fees. We did have to expand the budget line for potato chips and orange soda, of course, but a comparative cost analysis shows that even with the extra food our maintenance costs are still significantly lower than they would have been otherwise. But for all this, children still seem wedded to the same old excuses I, and I suspect many of you as well, used when we were that age. Children, it seems, are spotty revolutionaries at best, demanding that everything change while at the same time demanding that nothing change, in the same way that they want to hear the same story read to them over and over again in the same way. For all their existence on the cutting edge of the modern technological world, what have you done for me lately is not something any child really believes in. ‘Tis a wonderment, as Yul Brynner often said in another context entirely.


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