I wandered through the labyrinthine nylon straps, tensely interconnected. I would have detached one end from its post to cut through the needless path, but remembered that when I tried this trick before the barrier promptly escaped my hand under the mystical force of a retracting spool. This caused a loud, satisfyingly awkward snap and gained me the irate glare of a clerk at the Bank 1. I was pretty happy with the result at the Bank 1, but I figured this particular situation did not call for such defiance straightaway. This could all be resolved through peaceful, diplomatic skill if the encounter went according to plan. I had a brief vision as I snaked toward the empty service desk: the aftermath of an encounter gone bad. I pictured myself unhooking or charging through each tape, dragging the posts along behind me. Then I bumped into one of the stands and found they are surprisingly sturdy. Instead I imagined how ridiculous I would look lying on the floor tangled in a sinewy mess of black belts.
With an air of graciousness, I approached the final bend and leaned against the faux-granite countertop. I have one recourse in such a situation, an attitude I call my disarmingly helpless charm. I attempted to activate it. The librarian glanced up, unimpressed.
“Hi. I have a problem... With my account.”
“Card.” I wasn't sure if this was a statement, request, or command. I assumed it to be a combination of all three, and fumbled my student identification to her. She swiped it over a scanner reminiscent of a grocery check-out.
“They say... well, the computer says... my account shows that I haven't returned a book and I have a fine now. But I know I returned it. I put it in the outside slot last week because I was on my bike. I have done that before, and never—“
“This the one?” She swiveled the computer screen to a position where I could half see it. This obliged me to lean over the broad counter in an awkwardly suggestive manner, which made me uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to answer snidely that there was only one entry listed as delinquent on my account. Did she think I was complaining about a lost return that I imagined was going to happen in the future?
“I think so,” I answered humbly, my frustration beginning to well. A few moments of silence as the mouse clicked and various things flashed across the screen.
“Why did you renew it twice?” She glared at me.
“Because I wasn't done reading it.” I was a bit incredulous since the question seemed to have only one reasonable answer. Or was she accusing me of having lost the book, and extending the return date to postpone the inevitable fallout? And if such was the case, did she really expect me to crack under her Matlock-like questioning?
“Hm.” More silence. “It shows here that it wasn't returned.” It was readily apparent to me that this was precisely the reason I was speaking to her at this moment, yet this observation was offered as a prophetic utterance. The visions of my triumphal march through the crowd control maze began to take shape again in my imagination.
“But I did return it, to the outside slot, last week on the day it was due, and I want to check it out again. If the library lost it, is there another copy I could check out?” Contemporary Hermeneutics by Josef Bleicher. An excellent book, and I did need it again. The six weeks total of borrowing time including all renewals was ridiculously short, and I couldn't help but think that if I had been extended the proper borrowing privileges befitting a grad student this whole sordid affair would never have happened. But I realized too late how aggressive this must have sounded, and wondered if she had somehow been privy to the tirade babbling through my brain.
“...” More clicking. “You have to contact the Fines and Overdues Department and file a formal appeal with them. Your account will continue to accrue fines until a decision has bee reached.” I admit, this was a bit stunning. I half expected an argument or something of the like, but instead I was referred to another mound of bureaucracy. How could I respond to non-action and non-recognition?
“Fine. Do you have another copy of this particular text?” I was insistent on this point.
“...Yeah. Copies here, OISIE, and Vic.”
“Thank you.” I stalked away, following the ropes to the exit where I spilled out into the crowd of students sweeping toward the elevators. There, I dutifully flashed my identification again, realizing that the attendant at the elevator never even looked at me. The only thing important was the digital image of a person on this flimsy sheet of plastic.
On the way to the ninth floor I tried to imagine what I looked like to the system, how I fit into their understanding of the ordered universe. “Delinquent.” I was branded. They had no idea what I cared for. What my interests were. Why I wanted to read this book. Why I would renew it twice. But apparently she knew the only answer that mattered: I was a delinquent. A delinquent would obviously take any book out indiscriminately, renew it twice, hide it somewhere, then complain to her that I had a fine. I was completely one dimensional to the Nazibarian.
I marched to the section, then down the dimly lit aisle. After a quick scan of the shelves, I found the familiar cover, but the call number in the computer indicated that copy one was on the shelves. The only one I could see was copy two. Which looked quite familiar.
I remembered that there was some fairly unique marginalia in the table of contents. Someone had written brief descriptions next to selected chapters, as if this had been assigned as class reading to be copied and distributed. I flipped open the cover, and stared at these same marks.
I straightened my shoulders and marched toward the elevators. Pounding on the call button a few dozen times for measure, I clutched Contemporary Hermeneutics close to my body determined that someone would have to pry it from my rigor mortis corpse if they wanted to snatch it from me. On reaching the ground floor I tried to check it out from the machines, just to see what would happen. Item is already checked out to user. I had the truth now, and damned if I wasn't going to clobber someone with it.
I lined up at the service desk, allowing someone to go ahead of me to another employee so that I might reminisce with my friend the Nazibrarian. Maybe I should clarify: it wasn't the lost book or the process of appeal that irritated me, it was the arrogance and demeaning attitude they forced on me. Now it was time for some arrogance payback.
I self-confidently slid the book across the counter. Again, she looked unimpressed.
“I think there is a problem with this book. You see, it was on the shelf—but oddly!—this is apparently the same book you say I didn't return.” She scanned the book, then my card, which I duly produced. She sighed, and took the book to the back room. She was gone maybe two minutes.
“I'm sorry. It's all cleared up. I'm sorry.” This time she sounded a bit softer, much less arrogant.
As I slid my card back into my wallet, I noticed certain things about her that I hadn't before. Tired, baggy eyes. More wrinkles on the right side of her mouth than left. A small scar on her right ear. I wondered what her interests were, why she worked at Robarts, what life was like when she wasn't behind the service counter.
As I walked through the rotating exit doors, I thought about several of the essays in Contemporary Hermeneutics. The ones I especially liked examined the ubiquitous role of interpretation in our everyday lives, how the expectations and experiences we bring to each situation effect what we find—or what finds us. How the truth we encounter is in many ways dependent on us and what we bring to the present moment.
I thought about that librarian's face several times in the past week, both the first and second time I saw it. I wondered what or who had changed between those two encounters.