Sunday, May 02, 2004

Of Mice and Mentality

One of our unchronicled library regulars is a guy I'm going to call Lennie. I've not written about Lennie before because there hasn't been much to write about on the subject since this blog started last November. But he is a topic that should be addressed as he's something of an honorary "liberry" staff member.

Lennie's a mentally-challenged fellow in his mid-30s, who's tall, well-built and pretty much a perfect match for his literary namesake. To look at him, you might not even know there was anything amiss. He also reminds me a lot of Forest Gump--not the Tom Hanks Forest Gump, but rather the Gump of the original Winston Groom book who was supposed to be a really big guy whose brain just ran on a different track than most folks. That's pretty much Lennie for you. However, an even better way to describe him is how the mentally unbalanced character of Arnold Wiggins is described by his social worker Jack in the play The Boys Next Door. To paraphrase: Lennie can fool you sometimes, but his deck has no face cards.

Lennie's been a weekly fixture at the "liberry" for a number of years. He's old friends with Mrs. C, from back in their highschool days and he enjoys coming by and hanging out. In fact, he would be willing to come by and hang out every day for several hours at a stretch if we'd let him get away with it.

As far as I can tell, Lennie's ability to create and convey thoughts of his own is pretty limited. He tends to function better as a parrot of what he hears other people say. This isn't to suggest you can't carry on a conversation with him, which you can, but in conversational lulls he tends to return to whatever his theme for the day is, usually some bit of news he's picked up at one of the other businesses he hangs out in or at his grandmother's house, where he lives. If left to replay this theme, he'll play it all day and talk your ear off. We've learned that Lennie must therefore be kept busy when he's in house and must not be allowed to remain in house past his expiration point, (which is the point at which we want to say, "Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.... Now, just think of the rabbits and don't turn around...").

Before I began working at the "liberry," the staff used to have a regular problem with Lennie overstaying his welcome. After he'd been in for several hours with no sign of leaving, the staff would tell him it was time to go home and he would steadfastly ignore them. Mrs. C is just about the only person he'll pay any attention to in such circumstances, but if she wasn't on hand all bets were off as to when Lennie would leave.

Around this time, word filtered up to the library that Lennie had finally worn out his welcome at one of the barbershops downtown for refusing to leave. The barber had even gone so far as to call the police on Lennie--not that Lennie was doing anything that required police intervention, but the barber just wanted them to scare him a bit. Well, scare him they did. Badly. I'm sure they didn't mean to traumatize him, but for a guy of Lennie's mentality being put in the back of a squad car and then told it was because he stayed at the barbershop all day is very traumatic. Lennie cried and cried and avoided the barbershop for months for fear of being hauled off to jail. Instead, he began spending twice as much time at the library, which was not great either. Something needed to be done, so Mrs. C developed a plan...
Mrs. C's solution to our Lennie-Never-Leaves problem was to hire Lennie as a volunteer worker and make up a schedule for him where he could come in twice a week to help out for an hour or two at a time. And when Lennie's scheduled time was up, he had to leave with no argument. This was a stroke of creativity that continues to serve us well today. Mrs. C even negotiated a deal with the barber-shop in which they would be added to Lennie's schedule, permitting him to go back and regularly visit once again. (Although, we've noticed that Lennie has kept his hair military short since then, so we think perhaps he parleys his role as a customer into extra visits with them.) Several other area businesses have been added to Lennie's schedule and now every month Mrs. C prints him several new copies to take around to his hangouts. She even lightly chastises Lennie on the days when he fails to show up for his scheduled volunteer time at the library, just to keep him in good practice.

During his "work" days, Lennie helps out by shelving books in the children's room. These mostly go in the Easy Reader section, where it isn't important where in each letter section a book goes provided it goes in the right section for the first letter of the author's name. However, I've learned not to underestimate his ability in this department. I discovered one day that he is quite capable of shelving books in the Juvenile and Adult sections where a more precise alphabetizing system is used. Sure, he doesn't get them all absolutely correct and you do kind of have to go behind him and make sure they're placed properly, but his ratio of correct to incorrect shelvings is definitely skewed toward correct.

Lennie's also in charge of hauling non-fiction books upstairs on his workdays. Sometimes, if we don't pay close attention, he stays upstairs and attempts to help patrons find books. Often, the patrons are completely unaware of Lennie's limited capabilities ("he can fool you sometimes") and gladly accept his help. He then leads them on a merry romp around the library, going from shelf to shelf, stopping at each and peering thoughtfully at the spine-labels before moving on to another across the room. After a while, the "helped" patrons usually filter down to the circulation desk to say, "That guy you have working up there doesn't have any idea where anything is."

Lennie has also caused occasional trouble for us when he's not even in the library.

One day I got a call from a patron who explained that she doesn't see very well and that she wanted us to print out a list of all of our books on tape for her so she could go over it with a magnifying glass and pick out books she'd like to hear. I would have loved to print such a list for her, but our current computer cataloging system, VTLS, is royally incapable of such a feat. I explained this to the lady on the phone. She got mad at me and claimed she'd spoken with someone who worked at the library who assured her we could print her out a book on tape list. I told her that I'd never heard of such a thing being possible for us, but invited her to call back when a librarian was on hand to find out for sure.

"Well, I suppose I'm just going to have to come down there and make your computer print one out myself!" she said.

"You're welcome to try that too, ma'am," I told her.

Then she got another idea. "I think I'll just send Lennie down there. He said he can make it print."

"Excuse me, but who did you say you'd send?" I asked. I'd heard what she said, but I just couldn't believe it.

"Lennie," she said.


"Yes, Lennie. He works there! He's my neighbor."

"Yes, ma'am, I know who he is, but I assure you that if anyone DOES know how to print out such a list, it's NOT Lennie."

Evidently, Lennie's face-card lacking deck was able to fool her just fine.

Occasionally, we do still have trouble getting Lennie to leave, particularly when Mrs. C isn't around. However, we have since developed a solution to this problem that doesn't involve calling the police on him...
Sometime in the past few years, it was discovered that Lennie has an intense aversion to the song "YMCA" by the Village People. Our theory is that he was once forced to dance to it at a wedding reception. (How exactly we know it was at a wedding reception and not, say, a high school dance, is apocryphal knowledge at this point. It may have once been known for certain, but memories are becoming more and more like Lennie's as the liberry staff ages.) The upshot of this is, when Lennie doesn't want to leave, all we have to do is start singing "Young man, there's no need to feel down... I said, YOUNG man..." or even just raise our hands to form the Y and suddenly Lennie can't gather up his stuff to leave fast enough. It's amazing to watch. You've never seen books get checked out with such speed.

However, such a degree of magic button control over another human being is kind of scary, really. And with the whole "With great power coming great responsibility" thing, and all, we realize this is not the sort of power to be abused. We only use it when all other avenues have been exhausted. But on the rare occasions when we do, it's pretty damn funny.

Mostly, we really do like having Lennie around, but usually in regulated doses. We have been known, though, to make exceptions.

Last year Lennie's father died of a heart attack. While Lennie didn't live with his dad, they were pretty close and Lennie admired his father more than anyone. He was understandably shaken by his father's death. We wanted him to feel like he had people to turn to if he needed to talk so we decided that Lennie could stay at the library as long as he wanted to. It took a while before Lennie was back to his old self. His daily theme-topic stayed on the loss of his father for weeks. He was apt to go up to perfect strangers in the library and blurt out, "My daddy died. I'm sad." Or, he would repeat much of the warm words of comfort other people had told him about his father. "It's gonna be a rough time for a while," he would say. "Gonna be a rough time." He would bring in pictures of his dad and would wear his dad's old hat habitually. It was heartbreaking.

Lennie seemed to fall off the radar for a while around then. I didn't even notice he wasn't coming in at first, but eventually I realized that I hadn't seen him in a month or two. And when I did finally see him again, I realized I'd missed having him around. For the trouble and occasional grief he'd caused, it was nice to have him back. I've since made it a point to pay more attention to him when he's around. I think we often tend to file him away as background noise rather than treating him as the honorary co-worker that he is.

Though he doesn't read much, Lennie does check out books. When it's near time for him to go, Mrs. C asks him if he's picked out any books and he goes around the library and selects around 8 books. Some are easy-reader books, some juvenile, some adult, some non-fiction. He almost always takes some from the non-fiction new book section. These he proudly brings up to the desk to check out. And when he returns a week later, he makes sure to proclaim to any patrons nearby how much he enjoyed them, usually recommending certain books from his pile to them. And I'd say about half the time, the patrons take his recommendation and check the books out for themselves. Lennie's good for circulation.

It's pretty apparent that Lennie has a deep crush on Mrs. C. He's known her for a long time and she is his age, after all. To us it not only helps explain why a guy who doesn't read spends so much time in a library, but also why he almost always obeys her without question. I had suspected he had feelings for her for a while just based on how he acted when Mrs. C was around. However, it wasn't until Mrs. C's wedding last summer that Lennie's crush on her was pretty much confirmed for everyone, including Mrs. C.

The future Mr. C, you see, occasionally worked with Lennie's father and he and Lennie had been friends from probably before Mr. C met Miss C. Lennie seemed okay with the two of them dating, but when it was explained that Mr. C would be marrying Miss C, Lennie didn't much care to hear about it. In the months leading up to the wedding, Lennie would ask Mrs. C if she was still planning to get married.

"Yes," she would say.

"Darn it," Lennie would say.

Everyone was a bit apprehensive at the prospect of Lennie coming to the wedding itself. We weren't so much worried that he would say something at the "Speak now or forever hold your peace" bit, as we were pretty sure he wouldn't understand what that meant. Mostly, we were worried he would get up and walk down the aisle with the happy couple, as we had been warned Lennie had done at previous weddings he's attended. Lennie's a big guy and it might take a couple of people to hold him back, depending on how determined he was. However, it also seemed wrong not to invite him.

I don't know whether it was fortunate or not that Lennie didn't attend the wedding after all. I offered to sit with him and try to run interference, should it come to that, but he didn't come at all. Maybe he was afraid we'd make him dance to YMCA.

Weeks later, he asked Mrs. C how she was enjoying married life.

"It's very good," Mrs. C said.

"Darn it," Lennie said.

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An employee of a small town "liberry" chronicles his quest to remain sane while dealing with patrons who could star in a short-lived David Lynch television series.