The other day a young man walked into the library dressed entirely in purple—baggy purple shorts (it was freezing outside), a purple sweatshirt, and a purple baseball cap, its bill flattened to a fare-thee-well. But despite all the sartorial splendor, he looked a little unsure of himself, glancing around as one might in a foreign train station. When he noticed the word “Information” emblazoned on the wall over my head, he adopted a cocky air and strode purposefully across the floor toward me.
I know most of our regulars by sight and many by name. I'd never seen this young man before and, from his behavior, it was my guess he hadn't seen the inside of a library since elementary school, he wouldn't be visiting one now if it weren't for the fact he desperately needed our help with something he considered important, and, finally, he was already promising himself that, once this onerous task was over, he would never again subject himself to the humiliation of being seen in so strange and alien a place.
When my father was five and his brother seven, their father died. Money was tight, but somehow my widowed grandmother, at the height of the Depression, managed to raise both boys all by herself, and eventually find the resources to send them off to college. Though she was the daughter of a stone mason, you would have thought my grandmother descended from royalty. She always held her head high, always expected the same of those she loved. The worst epithet Mimi could bestow upon some action she considered beneath her standards for kith and kin was to declare it “common.” I can still remember the disdain with which she pronounced that word. I would have done anything as a child to avoid that label. I'm sure my father would have as well.
But despite his mother's aspirations for him, Dad, at the height of World War II, dropped out of college and joined the Marines. Years later, as a boy growing up, there was nothing I liked more than listening to my father tell stories of his time in the service, most of which, it seemed, ended with the same moral. First at Parris Island, then Quantico, then the bloody draws and ridges of Okinawa, Dad learned that if he was to survive, he would have to depend on the men around him ... regardless of race, religion, class, or their tendency to use the double negative. The Marine Corps turned my father into a committed, small “d” democrat. For him, every man, woman, and child—until proven otherwise—was “the salt of the earth.” Whenever I hear Aaron Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man,” I think of my father.
And so it is that now, whenever someone like the patron dressed in purple walks into our library, I imagine all the people in positions of power in his life who have made themselves feel big by making him feel small, and I promise myself that here, in our library, he's going to be treated differently, that I am going to make him feel that in this place, at this time, he is the most important person in the world. For, of course, he is. That's what libraries are all about.
As it happened, the young man wanted to use our public computers to apply for a job online. This is something we help people with every day at the library, so, relatively quickly, I was able to show him how to find, decipher, and fill out the necessary cyber application. When he was finished, I could tell he was pleased with himself, and pleased with the ease with which he had accomplished his goal. About a week later, I saw him in the library again, this time looking much more sure of himself, more comfortable with his surroundings. As he wandered off into the Teen fiction section, I wondered what might become of this young man now that he has discovered the repository of knowledge the people of Talbot County have placed at his beck and call, just how far the library might take him in life. And somewhere off in the distance, faintly, I thought I heard the first few bars of Aaron Copland's “Fanfare.”