The Russians came the summer of my first year at the library. They were exchange students, young and surprisingly self-possessed. They always arrived in a group, talking and laughing among themselves, the rich rolling syllables of their native tongue preceding them through the library doors. But as soon as they entered the library, they grew silent and purposeful, hunkering down before computer screens full of vaguely sinister Cyrillic script.
Looking back on it now, I think I was a little afraid of those Russians. Of course I was still new at my job then and it didn't take much to intimidate me. You'd be amazed how many different questions—on every imaginable subject—you get asked in the course of a day at the library. In my first months on the job, I lived in dread of being asked a question I didn't know the answer to, or, worse, a question I didn't even understand. There was something about the way these Slavic youngsters walked around looking so self-assured and European, the way they spoke quietly among themselves, in that complicated tongue, that played, I think, to the worst of my rookie fears.
Of course I should have known better. By scrimping and saving, my wife and I have had the great good fortune to travel from time to time in foreign countries. I know what it's like to walk around in a world where you don't know the rules, where you haven't a clue what the bell that just rang means (the grocery is closing for the employees' lunch hour), or why the lady behind the deli counter who's been so kind is suddenly staring daggers at you as you dither over your cheese. In such a world, it's easy to find yourself adopting a pose, attempting to look self-confident and assured even as, within, you are desperately trying to decipher all the bizarre signals coming in from this alien world.
Interestingly, it was one of our long-time volunteers who set me straight on this. She's a no-nonsense lady, one of those ones who, when the crockery gets smashed, quietly goes about picking up the pieces while everyone else is wringing their hands and bemoaning the loss. I was working with this paragon one day when the Russians came in and their leader, a tall, supercilious youth with marquee idol looks, came over and asked for computer passes for the lot of them. Our volunteer printed up the passes, handed them to Rudolph Valentino, and then, in a perfectly offhand voice, said, “Now don't you forget to e-mail your mother, let her know you're all right.” All signs of sophistication instantly drained from the lad's face and we found ourselves looking at a wide-eyed boy—who nodded nervously and promised this willowy blonde babushka he would.
Beneath the surface, we're all pretty much the same—it's a lesson integral to the experience of a library. For the place is a great leveler: all classes and conditions of people come here with the same questions in mind: What can I find in this place that will entertain me, teach me, utterly bedazzle me? Will I, can I still, be changed?
This summer the students were all girls, South American I think, each of them affecting in her own way a look that said I'm-just-a-super-model-passing-through-Easton-on-my-way-to-points-much-more-interesting-and-hip. Then, on a day late in August, I noticed several of them on their regular, daily visit looking strangely wistful. As they were about to leave, one of them pulled a camera from her bag, pointed it at the children's section, took a picture, turned and took a picture of the adult section, then turned a final time and took a picture of the circulation desk. Super-model status notwithstanding, there was, it seemed, one place this girl dearly wanted to remember: the Talbot County Free Library.