by Eusebia Parrotto, Trento Public Library*
He is of an indeterminate age, somewhere between 40 and 55. He's wearing two heavy coats, one over the other, even though it's 75 degrees out today (shirt-sleeve weather) and a large backpack. He's been a regular in the library for a couple of months, from first thing in the morning until closing in the evening. He moves from the periodicals area along the hall to the garden on fair weather days. Sundays, when the library is closed, he is not far away, in the nearby park or on the pedestrian street just outside.
I run into him at the coffee vending machine. He asks me, somewhat hesitantly, if I have any change. I can see that he's missing most of his front teeth. I've got a euro in my hand, and I offer it to him. He takes it slowly, looks at it carefully, and is transformed. His face lights up with a huge smile, and like an excited child, but with a mere whisper of a voice, he says: "Wow!! A euro! Thanks!" I smile back at him, and I can see that he's trying to say something else but he can't, it tires him. I can smell the alcohol on his breath and I assume that's the reason for his lapse. He motions to me to wait while he tries to bring forth the sounds, the words. I do wait, watching. He lifts a hand to the center of his neck as if to push out the words, and he says, with great effort and slowly: "I don't speak well, I had an operation. Look." There is a long scar on his throat that goes from one ear to the other. I recognize what it is. He says again, "Wait, look" and pulls up his left sleeve to show me another scar along the inside of his forearm that splits in two just before his wrist. "I know what that is," I say.
Cancer of the throat. An incision is made from under the chin to arrive at the diseased tissue. They then reconstruct the excised portion using healthy tissue taken from the arm. That way the damaged area will recover, to the extent it can, its original functions.
With great effort and determination he tells me, giving me the signal to wait when he has to pause, that he was operated on nearly a year go, after three years in which he thought he had a stubborn toothache. When he couldn't take it any more he was taken to the emergency room and was admitted to hospital immediately. I tell him that he's speaking very clearly, and that he has to exercise his speech often to improve his ability to articulate words; it's a question of muscle tone and practice. I ask him if he is able to eat. I know that for many months, even years, after the operation you can only get down liquids and liquified foods. He replies "soups, mainly!" It will get better, I tell him.
His eyes shine with a bright light, he smiles at me, signals to me to wait. Swallows. Concentrates and continues his story, about a woman doctor friend, who he only discovered was a doctor after he got sick. He tells me some details about the operation; the radiation therapy. This is the second time that he has cheated death, he says. The first was when he fell and hit his head and was in a coma for fifteen days. "So now this, and it's the second time that I have been brought back from the brink." He says this with a smile, even a bit cocky, with punch. And then tears come to his eyes. He continues to smile, impishly, toothlessly. "I'm going to make it, you'll see. Right now I'm putting together the forms to get on disability, maybe that will help." "Let's hope it works out," I say as we part. And he replies: "No, not hope. You've got to believe."
The derelicts of the library. A few months back it was in all of the local papers. One student wrote a letter to the newspaper complaining that the presence of the homeless and the vagabonds profaned the grand temple of culture that is the library. Suddenly everyone had something to say on the matter; even those who had never even been to the library were upset about the derelicts there. They said it made them feel unsafe. Others told how it made them feel uncomfortable to come into the library and see them occupying the chairs all day long. Even when half of the chairs were free they were taking up the places of those who needed to study. Because you can't obviously mix with them.
I don't know how often the person I chatted with today had the occasion to speak to others about his illness. It's a terrible disease, painful, and it leaves one mutilated for life. Recovery from the operation is slow, over months, years. It's an infliction that leaves you with a deep fear even when you think you are cured. That man had such a desire to tell the story of his victory over the disease, his desire to live, his faith that never left him even in the darkest moments. I know this from the great light that radiated from his visage, and from his confident smile.
I don't know of any other place but standing at the vending machine of a library where such an encounter is possible between two worlds, two such distant worlds. I don't know where else there can be a simple conversation between two persons who, by rule or by necessity, occupy these social extremities; between one who lives on the margins of society and another who lives the good life; who enjoys the comforts of a home, a job, clean clothes and access to medical care. Not in other public places, which are open only to a defined segment of the population: consumers, clients, visitors to public offices. These are places where you are defined momentarily based on your social activities. Not in the street, or in the square, because there are the streets and squares that are frequented by them, and the others, well-maintained, that are for us. And if one of them ventures into our space he is surely not come to tell us his story, nor are we there to listen to it.
He is called a derelict, but this to me is the beauty of the public library. It is a living, breathing, cultural space that is at its best when it gathers in all of those beings who are kept outside the walls of civil society, in spite of the complexity and contradictions that implies.
The library is a place with stories; there are the stories running through the thousands of books in the library as well as the stories of the people who visit it. In the same way that we approach a new text with openness and trust, we can also be open and trusting as listeners. Doing so, we'll learn that the stories of others are not so different from our own; that the things that we care about in our lives, the important things, are the same for everyone. That they are us, perhaps a bit more free, a bit more suffering, with clothes somewhat older than our own.
Then I read this. It tells the story of the owner of a fast food restaurant who, having noticed that after closing someone was digging through the trash cans looking for something to eat. So she put a sign on store window, inviting the person to stop in one day and have a fresh meal, for free. The sign ends with: "No questions asked."
So this is what I want written on the front door of all libraries: "Come in, whoever you are. No questions asked."
*Translated and posted with permission. Original.
[Note: David Lankes tweeted (or re-tweeted, I don't remember) a link to Eusebia's blog, and I was immediately taken by it. She writes beautifully of the emotion of the public library. I will translate other posts as I can. And I would be happy to learn of other writers of this genre that we can encourage and publicize. - kc]