As a teenager, I spent hours at the local library. The huge building reminded me of a castle or tiny fortified city as it stood, solid and intimidating, against the background of run-down buildings and awkwardly paved streets circling it. It only needed a drawbridge and moat with alligators to complete my mental picture. (Heck, throw in a few knights-in-shining-armor, too.)
Part of what lent it that fortified-refuge look was the nearby homeless shelter. This was not the best part of town. Whenever I visited my mother at her library job, I parked close to the door and walked as quickly as I could to the front door. There, I stopped to catch my breath. I can’t tell you how many times someone begged me for money between my car and the door. They weren’t supposed to, but they did.
The homeless—usually men, scruffy-bearded and clothed in mismatched castoffs—were regulars at the library. I often spied one of them, lounging in an arm chair, eyes closed, as I wandered the stacks of books. Sometimes I smelled before I saw him.
I was looking for books on writing fiction.
He was looking for air conditioning or heat or safety.
I never made eye contact. I fixed my gaze on the book spines, ignoring him but acutely aware of his presence a few feet away.
They didn’t use the library only as a temporary residence. Some used the library’s computers or other free resources, just like I did.
My mother, who worked in the reference department, came home with stories about their “regulars” who always wanted the same types of materials: business, for example. Or whatever topic held their interest that day: JFK’s assassination or government conspiracies or the space program or . . . the list went on.
They all had stories: some of them were heartbreaking, while others were delusions of a mentally ill person without proper medication. Some had been bums their entire lives. Others had been promising, well-educated people who suffered a fall, often for reasons beyond their control.
One regular patron wrapped himself in tin foil and paraded down a main street of our town. He was arrested. Later, he killed himself.
Another regular patron had a doctorate in some scientific field, but mental illness had left him jobless. I don’t remember if he was homeless or if some relative had taken him in, but he came often, asking bizarre questions of the librarians and frantically researching some obscure thing for the government (or a university, or think-tank of some importance. I don’t remember.)
I remember wondering why he’d lost his job—if he was that brilliant, couldn’t the employer have kept him in some capacity?—and wondering at the devastation wrought by imbalanced brain chemicals–couldn’t he take some medication? Couldn’t someone else just pay for his medication?
On the chance he’s survived these last twenty years and reads this:
Forgive me, sir: for never knowing your name. For not understanding what I understand now. For not seeing you as a person, and not seeing how alike we are.
In my wanderings, I came across John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It was the first book on writing that I encountered that treated novel-writing as serious business, and I devoured his ideas. (Other books treated the various elements of fiction as formulas, connect-the-dots exercises that I resisted, and still resist.) Toward the end of the book, he writes,
“Every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death.
(. . .)
They should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”
Gardner’s words resonated in me. They’ve followed me.
Here I was, a teenager with dreams of writing and glory and Pulitzer prizes, surrounded by those on the brink: on the edge of sanity, the choice between continuing a difficult life and dying, hungry for something other than food. Hungry for hope.
And we were both surrounded by books.
And in those books were words.
And in those words were the power to do good or do evil.
I didn’t see this connection then. But I sensed it as one smells a perfume, or touches an object in a dark room. It was there, hovering at the edges of my understanding, whispering, remember this.
In my fortress, two worlds collided.
The first was the world of a naive, book-loving teen, where the future held college and career. Depression was there, but covered with good acting and good behavior and good friendships.
The second was the world of the homeless men, where the past ravaged the futures, ripping life from their bones. Depression was there, sitting alone in a beat-up chair, clothed in castoffs from a do-gooder’s closet.
Between the stacks of books, these two worlds came together. I couldn’t have foreseen how, a few years later, my own life would be devastated by mental illness, nor how this darkness would rip hope from me, nor how alone one person could feel.
Our lives were fragile. Even though I looked different on the outside, I wasn’t all that different from the homeless men in that building and outside on the streets. We needed love. We needed respect. We needed hope.
We still do.