Yesterday I got caught up in a Facebook argument about public libraries and care for the homeless.
Well, I sort of got caught up – sort of, as usual I missed most of it, because a) I was hanging out here with you reprobates b) the time normally devoted to writing was devoted to sleeping. [Long disquisition on what was going on at the time elided.]
This discussion got me thinking, and btw, you are warned this might be the world’s longest blog post because I’m zombified and therefore can’t write short to save my life.
It started with a fan linking a bunch of us to a site about libraries. What he said was sort of true of me, though not really.
I have a very odd relationship with libraries. First, to begin with, unlike most of you, I didn’t fall in love with a public library in childhood. I didn’t, because there were none. Portugal has a system of public libraries, and in fact, if you look on line, there is a picture of a very ornate library in Portugal. When that was making the rounds of the net, all my friends linked me with “wow, you must know that place inside out.” Well… um… the place was in fact in either Lisbon or Coimbra, which most of the time I was growing up were a tediously long train journey away. So even had they been libraries as Americans view them, I probably wouldn’t have visited them that often. And I’ll confess I was, briefly, for a few months, familiar with the Porto branch of the same library system.
The reason I was familiar with it, will explain to you why I wasn’t more familiar and the difference between Portuguese libraries and American ones. I spent a few months, every free moment after school, in that library tracing the fluctuations of currency through the sixteenth century in Portugal.
See, the libraries in Portugal are repositories of original material – some of it very old. If you want to do anything that requires primary sources you go to the public library. The entire system is the equivalent of the section of libraries here devoted to local history and documents.
As in those, you can’t check books out, and quite frankly, you wouldn’t want to. The few fiction books in there are those considered of historical and/or literary value.
There are of course other libraries, most of those being rather small and confined and private. Most parish houses have a lending library at least for young people. A lot of youth clubs have libraries. Schools from middle school up have libraries.
Unfortunately, it is all tainted by the rather nose-in-the-air attitude that culture is something that’s too good for the common folk and also that the common folk must be protected from “trashy novels.”
With the best good will in the world – and remember I’m the kid who read Thomas Mann at eight simply because I was bored out of my gourd and those were the only books I could get my hands on (in the attic) which hadn’t been read yet. Same reason I read Camus at 11 – I found myself hard pressed to discover anything in most of those libraries that I wanted to read. Most of it was moral tracts and improving works, and it was therefore as dusty as it deserved to be.
I think I once found a book about a Portuguese Queen in my High School library which was only half bad. I “think” because I might have dreamed it.
By the time I’d started tutoring I’d come to the conclusion not the only difference but a considerable one between me and most of the people I tutored was that they’d grown up without fun books.
This was particularly bad when the kids I got were geniuses (most of them were. Not all) born to families of poor-but-honest-and-definitely-pious peasants.
Portugal is an odd country. It is said that every Portuguese has a book of poems stowed away somewhere that will never see the light of day. This is probably true – at least to some extent. I would be very shocked if the guy up the street who forced his family to live in medieval squalor and farmed by medieval methods had one, but you never know. Those romantic poets can get weird.
At any rate, most Portuguese will at the very least pay lip service to books. It was a shock to me when I came to the states and people saw me reading and asked me what I was studying for. In Portugal a lot of people read in the train, though for working class young men, in my day, that was usually comic books.
However, a certain class of people… let’s call it the wanna-be middle class, views it as their duty to keep their kids – particularly their daughters – from being corrupted with “trashy” stuff. Portugal being a country with two feet, two ankles and heck, at least up to the chest in the past, “trashy” is anything written in the last hundred years, which hasn’t been given the imprimatur of either “intellectuals” or “the church.”
My family was always weird, in that mom disapproved of books about imaginary stuff (I think younger son takes after her, though he likes the meatier SF and some mysteries. He prefers books about how things work/worked, and real history and stuff) but dad was addicted to who-dunnits and adventure books (Captain Morgan and Sir Walter Scott were his.)
Dad had spent all his pocket money since he was eleven or so (and this is a man who walked over an hour to school because buses were too expensive) in the used bookshops (known in Portuguese by the rather romantic and I suspect Arab-origin name of Alfarabios. Normal bookshops were librarias (places containing books.) I have no idea what Alfarabios means, etymologically, but like bazaar or kiosk it has a romantic taste in the tongue, a suggestion of something exotic and strange.) Those weren’t very common when I was growing up in Portugal, because culture taints buying used with the same sort of low-class feel as selling your stuff in pawnshops. But dad was broke, and he had to read.
His library was augmented by inheritances from his grandmother and great grandmother both of which I’m given to understand though nothing of feeding the family on vegetable soup for a week so they could buy the new chapters of the novels they were following. (These were sold in chapters, with a hole on top, hanging from a loop of string attached to a pole. The bookseller came through village hawking his wares, and sold novels to people a chapter at a time – they probably couldn’t have afforded a whole book at once. They sold fun stuff – I think our Sir Walter Scott was originally bought that way – and villagers bought it, and once they had a book, they’d save and send it to be bound up. This system had ended LONG before my time, but the expression “string literature” for cheap, accessible, exciting adventures stayed in the language. My dad often teased me with it when I was little and devouring Enid Blyton by the yard.) Then as my brother and I started reading, we started pooling our birthday and Christmas money to buy paperbacks: science fiction and mystery, mostly. And since my dad still devoted most of his money to books – it was his secret vice. Other men blew money away on drink. He spent it on books – we learned to coordinate and strategize purchases. This meant, yes, that my brother and I often bought dad the books we wanted to read for his birthday and read them very carefully and wearing gloves before we wrapped them for him. It meant also that when going to the book fair, which takes place in large cities for a couple of weeks in summer, outdoors, in tents, and where books are usually offered starting at half price (and old stock that was in the back MUCH cheaper) we had to compare lists. “Okay, I’m looking for this, this and this are they on your list?” We also would do the first walk then call home and ask the others if they (if they’d gone before) had already bought x y or z. This was hard learned. The year I turned fourteen and had some money I’d made (it might have been the year I ran a neighborhood newspaper) and my brother had money from tutoring, we went to the book fair separately and ALL THREE OF US brought home the exact same books, which was a total waste of money.
But, anyway, when I realized a lot of the peasant kids I taught needed more fun books, I began starting libraries or enriching the ones that existed. I convinced my Portuguese and English teachers to back me up in adding an SF section to the High School library, for instance. It required them to convince the librarian that translations and science fiction at that could be “worthy”. It leaned heavily to Bradbury, but I sneaked in some Heinlein under the radar. I also started lending libraries in two groups I was involved with. Whether they lasted past my improvement Bob (Heinlein) knows.
Coming to the States was a shock to the system. First of all, my host family had no books in the house. None. I don’t mean to imply they were stupid, they weren’t. But their entertainment ran to TV and magazines. I suppose dad had technical books but there was no reading-as-fun. This was odd even amid neighbors. Dan’s family down the road always had books lying about.
But just as I started to go on a jag of withdrawal, my host mother said something like “Well, for heaven’s sake, why don’t you go to the library?” I was still new and didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t tell mom that I didn’t want that KIND of boring. Instead, I let her take me to the public library. And I fell in love.
Books. Not just fun fiction, but fun non-fiction. Who knew people would write things like the life of Shakespeare and other history, and books about quasars in ways that common people would want to read them? (They came to Portugal, too, eventually, but at that time popular non-fiction was news to me.)
Yes, it was sort of like locking a kid in the candy store. I ended up volunteering at the library because that way they’d trust me to take more books out, and besides, I’d discover stuff I’d never seen before.
Then I went back to Portugal and, shaky from withdrawal and also wanting to keep my English up, discovered that American tourists, bless their wealthy hearts, often abandoned the books they’d brought over to read over summer (understandable, since that meant they had more room for stuff bought cheap in Portugal.) I’ve read more thrillers and beach romances than I care to admit to, but it kept both the English and the reading bug sharp.
Back in the states, newly wed and frankly broke, I both developed an unhealthy relationship with a used book store called The Bookworm in Rockhill, South Carolina, and I learned to drive PRIMARILY so I could drive to the library. In Charlotte we routinely borrowed books from three branches, and when I was bed-ridden with Robert, Dan took our biggest three suitcases (the ones we took when traveling to Portugal) down to the library sale, with strict orders to fill them to the top and in the order of SF, Mystery, historical, nonfiction consisting of biographies, history and science. I think he bought out MOST of the sale and all in those categories.)
Then we moved to the Springs and we were somewhat beyond broke. I’d also abandoned 2/3 of my books when moving from the Carolinas (truck space) which left me HUNGERING for books. Yeah, I had the local bookshops free-bookshelf where they put the books they didn’t think they could resell. I used to go early in the morning, with Robert in a carriage, to snag the most readable stuff. But there is only so much gothic romance a woman can read.
So I used the library. We lived downtown, in a student apartment, and the library was thirty minutes walk away. I used to make that walk every other day and the pouch at the back of the carriage was full of books for the return trip. The library was also where I sought refuge on weekends, when Dan was watching the kids, to get a little bit of writing done (longhand. No laptops.)
This was the period where my relationship to the library (practically living there) was the one described in the stuff the fan posted.
When we moved away from downtown that relationship became more distant. I still did some library sales (it was at one of those I found Dwight Swain) when I was aware they were happening, and I still went to the library when the preliminary hints of an idea started bothering me. Say “something about Africa.” This allowed me to read forty or fifty books for free before I decided if the idea worked.
The last time I read the library out of books in one section was … must be 6 years ago (I was homeschooling the kid. Might have been seven) when I was considering the idea of a series about women of the War of the Roses.
A little earlier, while we were working on the other house to get it ready to sell, I borrowed audio books at the rate of two a day.
But even then it wasn’t as essential as it had been, once upon a time. I could now find the precise book or books I wanted on Amazon and often very cheap even with shipping. This became more so with electronic books and the possibility of sampling a lot in the free section. Also the preliminary reading on some theme or other can be done on line.
So, a year ago I needed to find information on a particular Romanian ruler, whose name evades me now. I found hardly anything on line – a page or two – and usually just mentions in the books I could get hold of. So I thought “library.”
My older son and I set off on an expedition. It will show you the kind of hopeful idiot I am, that I took a shoulder-sack, convinced we’d fill it.
I should have known better. The last time I tried to WORK at the library – four? – years ago, I couldn’t, because the place was full of homeless AND social workers interviewing them at a volume usually reserved for public speaking in a crowded room without microphones.
But they still had books!
A year ago… not so much. Oh, there were still SOME books, most of them put in places they shouldn’t be and a lot of them missing that should be on the shelf. BUT half of the space was taken up with music, games, videos and other things that, last I checked, weren’t BOOKS.
The library was also serving as an informal, ersatz homeless shelter, which made me afraid of going to some of the lower levels and looking for stuff.
I found not one book to check out, not even a tangentially relevant one. I won’t be going back. And while I’m sure the suburban libraries are better in terms of not having patrons urinating in the corner, I can check the stock on line and they too seem to be going video/game/music.
However, the festivities on line started with Bill Quick saying that his own library was unusable being full of homeless. I concurred.
Enter the bleeding heart brigade, saying that if we had better services for the homeless this wouldn’t happen.
Bill immediately pointed out he lives in San Francisco, possibly the city with the BEST homeless assistance services. And I pointed out that Colorado Springs is known in the region as having some of the best assistance services (many of them private) from soup kitchens to shelters.
We were then accused of being heartless and wanting to sweep poverty and need under the rug.
So… I know it took me this long to come to the point, but I wanted you to realize what libraries as they used to be in America can mean not just to me but more so to people who have no books at home, and the theory of comparative scale of use. (Also I’m ill and writing long is much easier than writing short.)
First let’s start with the fact that homelessness as it exists in America isn’t poverty. In fact part of the problem with it is that it ISN’T poverty. Look, regardless of what you’ve seen on the movies or tv, most homeless are not families fallen on hard times. Yes, there are some of those now, but most of those while technically “homeless” aren’t living in your local park. They’ve just taken over mom and dad’s basement, moved onto a friend’s living room or whatever. Terrible – I’ve been JUST short of that at least three times in my married life – and humiliating, but NOT “stand in the park and wheedle on yourself.”
90% of the homeless in America and the hard core ones are people with mental health issues, people with drug abuse issues and people who have found they can live without having to do anything for it, and can be “free” and outside society. I’ve overheard conversations in the park, and I suppose that most of the people who “dropped out” in the sixties are dead, but a lot of them are alive and going from soup kitchen to free clinic, with a bit of begging in between.
Yes, there are entire families in this system, including homeless children – but for them to stay in it, the parents need to have some sort of serious issue. Otherwise, even if they can’t find work, there is assistance available to get them at least into public housing, which, nightmarish though it is, is not living in the park.
I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t happen to normal families too – see where I came very close to that level and more than once too – but normal families usually tend to bounce back. They go through a few months of mess and horror, and then they claw back to some semblance of normalcy. (This might change as our economy dives and programs of necessity get cut. The ones for the DESERVING poor will be cut first, of course, since they rarely riot.)
The problem with this is that when people get appalled at the conditions the homeless live in and start offering “homeless services” there is an entire network, not just of homeless but of social workers who direct the homeless to the cities with better services.
I swear to you and I’m not even joking that right now there are plenty more homeless on Colorado Springs streets than in Denver, despite the Springs being much smaller.
The Springs also has its soup kitchens and other services downtown and within easy walking distance of each other.
This means downtown businesses are closing, except for bars and restaurants which can control access. And that the library is of course a place to camp in the cool/warm during the day.
It means more than that. We moved within easy driving distance of downtown, because when we lived downtown when we first came to Colorado Springs, I used to take walks every day. When we moved to our little mountain village, without these, I gained ten pounds a year. I used to love walking downtown, dropping by the deli and the three bookstores (only one left, and it’s MOSTLY a restaurant now) checking out the other little shops which ranged from yarn to weird import crafts.
Now those are gone. Worse – the last two times I walked downtown alone (i.e. without commanding the muscle, aka older son to go with me) someone FOLLOWED me and I had to employ stuff from my childhood to lose them. Once it was a large and addled looking male, and yes, he was following me. And once it was TWO large and addled looking males. For the icing on the cake – not related to this, but from a blog entry – I clicked on the sex offenders registry. Yes, I know, a lot of people there are there because someone accused them and was never proven. Our local one at least has notes on whether it’s accusation, trial or conviction and also whether the crime was against children or adults.
The downtown zipcode is FULL of registered sex offenders who’ve done hard time and who have committed their crimes against adults. The faces are very familiar from my walks, and yep, one was the guy who tried to follow me.
Which means, if I walk I take the boy with me. Even then at least once some guys tried to flank us. You see, the vagrancy laws are not being enforced AT ALL because the city is “compassionate.”
Let’s talk about compassion – most of the shops downtown were mom and pop operations and many had been there since right after WWII. But when customers are afraid to walk around (and when the stupid meters with requirements you move every two hours make it impossible to park close by and just go around the more popular area, because city planners don’t understand you don’t shop downtown like at the mall) and when you can’t keep homeless from coming in and peeing on your books, the stores either move elsewhere and close. Which, arguably destroys wealth.
This same “compassion” makes it impossible for women and children to walk downtown in their lawful pursuits. This same “compassion” makes the library which could help a lot of kids fall in love with books as we did, and meet other people who like books (even if they are reading them mostly online) into a dangerous no-go zone. This same compassion is emptying the smaller office buildings that don’t have doormen. The office I rented, which was the only one I could afford, eventually became unusable. These are the times they are, and a lot of small businesses are going under, so when I moved in the office building was half full. Only you know how it is… small businesses, we worked odd hours. Sometimes when I was there there was only me and two or three other people in a building with forty or so offices.
And then other people started moving out. I didn’t understand why until the day I was alone on my floor and I came across a clearly homeless guy in the hallway. I’d seen them there before. They usually roamed in and roamed out, and you walked past them. Only this one was… well… feral. There was no human in the eyes. I barely got into my office ahead of his jump for me, and then I was stuck there until I was sure he was gone (which took a lot of looking through the bulls-eye) which was about four hours, and the room didn’t have either water or a bathroom (those were down the hall.) I had the presence of mind to play one of my audio books – with male voices – loud enough to sound like I had a guy in there with me (I talked in between) and he moved off very fast.
After that I didn’t use the office and let it lapse when the rental ran out. That building is now completely empty and for sale. Is that compassionate to the owner who is btw an immigrant and not particularly wealthy?
Is it a matter, as someone once preached at me, of my wanting “poverty and deprivation swept under the rug?”
Oh, h*ll no. If these homeless people were the kind of down at heel families or working-class people the movies depict them as, I’d feel sorry for them, but I would NOT want them swept out of the public view. Poor people – no matter how much maligned poverty is by being accused of causing crime or whatever – don’t usually try to attack people and rape them, poor people aren’t evil. They’re just poor. I know. I’ve been poor a lot and some of my best friends are poor.
But instead, most homeless are … feral. The sort of people who don’t recognize the social compact and don’t care about the rules of society. At best they are insane and unpredictable (read My Brother Ron by Clayton E Cramer, for a look at what many, many of the homeless are like) at worst they are drug addicted and … how do I put this? Contemptuous of those of us who play by the rules, have jobs, and make an effort for a living.
And that’s the problem. The problem is most cities and private charities misdiagnose the issue. They look at their mounting unemployment and they think “we must do something to help these people.” Heaven knows that’s true and getting worse.
But then comes the non-judgmental gospel of the age, where you can’t judge, and you can’t ask what these people were doing, require that they keep clean, require they see a psychiatrist in order to get food. No, you can’t do any of that because that would be discriminatory. So you just give freely and as much as possible.
And the vultures come.
I pity the REAL “homeless due to need” families that have to raised kids in that kind of hell. They should get help, but they shouldn’t be forced to get it next to sex offenders, chronic drug abusers and people who frankly couldn’t give a d*mn about getting out of that situation and getting better.
And I pity the businesses who have to cope with this invasion by feral humans, supported by other people’s money but not feeling the slightest obligation to other people. And I pity the children who will never get to experience public libraries or the guidance of a friendly librarian. And I pity the women and teens who can’t simply take a stroll downtown. And I pity the owners of downtown buildings who aren’t wealthy enough to hire doormen. I pity the drug addicted/mentally ill (often a covalent group) who don’t find guidance or help in keeping up with their medications and becoming functional again.
Compassion? I’m full of it. But not for those who are feeding the beast of dependence. Not for those who make it possible for people to live off society but not in it. Those false bleeding hearts just want to feel good about themselves.
And by being kind to the cruel and parasitical they are much more than cruel to the kind and helpless.