Digressions, Episode 1

by Robert Metrick

(The characters in this article are nearly fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is nearly coincidental.)


It wasn’t easy getting here… slogging through the rush hour bumper-to-bumper caravan on the tollway… through the blizzard …headed out to a suburb far, far from my home. Not that I was complaining… I truly wasn’t. In this economy, I was fortunate enough to have even part-time work—especially in my chosen profession, as a reference librarian at an ever expanding, multi-branched university. So many of my friends—librarians, knowledge managers, teachers, graphic designers, pilates instructors, writers, artists and freelancers of all persuasions—everyone was scrambling for work, so I really felt quite fortunate. And in this economy, one had to be especially malleable which Merriam-Webster defines as:

1.) capable of being extended or shaped by beating with a hammer or by the pressure of rollers
2.) capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces or influences
3.) having a capacity for adaptive change.

I liked to think I was capable of each.

I genuinely loved my job, and always looked forward to each shift. It was getting to there that was the Herculean challenge. My thrice weekly commutes were intricately planned, and I did everything in my power to beat the rush hour traffic. Early afternoon was particularly suspenseful. No doctor appointments or appointments of any kind after 2:00… cardio workouts ended by 1:45, leaving 20 minutes for stretching, 22 minutes for shower and change into library attire, and then 3 minutes of walking to the car. Everything had to work like clockwork.

One could either have a somewhat leisurely 45 minute commute by leaving at 2:30, or a dreadful 90 minute commute if one left at 2:33. There was no in-between. And in this town, rush hour arrived earlier and earlier. Of course, there was no public transportation between Here and There. I always tried—and sometimes succeeded—in making the best of it. I might listen to the podcast of last night’s Rachel Maddow show. Or maybe the new Joanna Newsom 3-disc boxed set in its exquisite entirety (I could not quite handle listening to the pledge drive on NPR). Occasionally, diaphragmatic breathing exercises came in handy when traffic had reached a standstill. Seven second inhalation. Ten second exhalation. Followed by a light snack.My journey took me beyond the airport, beyond the Doubletree Hotel, the T.G.I. Fridays, the Embassy Suites, past the Nike outlet store, the Denny’s, the mini-malls and super-malls. At last, I arrived at my destination, Building 3 in the northwest quadrant of the office park, just in time for my 4:00-9:00 pm shift. This campus mainly served evening/weekend MBA and continuing education students who would shortly be arriving. The library was adjacent to the reception area of the administrative offices, which seemed to be staffed by different women (yes, ALWAYS women) each week. Even though I worked at 3 different campuses with 3 different sets of staff during a typical week, I still felt bad that I could not keep track of everyone’s names because they all seemed to know mine and were usually quite friendly. But we always exchanged “hello’s.”

There was a welcoming, yet eerie silence when I arrived at the barren library. The tables and chairs were all empty; the computers nestled comfortably in deep sleep, their screensavers reflecting the florescent lights of the suspended ceiling. I booted up the computer (which always seemed to take at least 15 minutes with Windows XP), and my workday began with the daily ritual of “reading the forecast’’—that is, scanning the transcripts of virtual reference/chat sessions that had transpired throughout the day. The “forecast” allowed me to shake off the cobwebs of the treacherous commute, to sharpen my wits, so to speak….

The “forecast” was a warm-up exercise, my prelude to covering the virtual desk for the entire university in the evening hours, from my distant perch in the hinterlands. For instance, at the beginning of the semester, I could study the multitude of transcripts with students searching for the current edition of their extravagantly priced textbooks, and the diplomatic strategies of my fellow librarians in informing students that such materials would most likely not be found in libraries. Or transcripts of the latter part of quarter, when students were turning to virtual librarians with research questions on complexly obscure subjects that were impossible to answer via chat/IM, yet somehow were. Starting a part-time shift in the middle of the workday was often like entering a conversation in midstream, without context or content. Hence, my reading of the forecast was especially illuminating.

Once I logged onto chat, I had to be prepared for anything. Within seconds, I was greeted by a steady stream of IM beeps that would continue throughout the night. Of course, I was grateful for the company. Someone IM’d to request that I tell the students on the third floor to pipe down, and I had to explain that I would be happy to do so were I not 25 miles away from the main campus, but I would certainly notify the staff.

Another person asked how he/she could find data on non-equity reserves for a Swedish cereal company, from the fiscal years 1994 to 2007, but my guidance on the finance databases was soon interrupted by a third person who simply inquired, “Celtics or Lakers?” apparently alluding to the game that night. My gut reaction is always to go with the Lakers, but as an academic librarian, I felt obliged to maintain my neutrality—and, of course, suggested only peer-reviewed sources.

And then there was someone looking for art books on muralists of the Mexican Revolution, but specifically as e-books since he/she was not about to venture out to the library, although I did my best to encourage this person to do so. I actually could not blame him/her on this miserably frigid night.

I was just beginning to feel warmed up, capable of answering anything from anyone… when I realized that it was closing time, and if I didn’t leave soon, the weather might leave me stranded at the Extended Stay America next door. Perhaps this was not such a bad idea. Think of all the commuting I’d be saving myself. But the drive home was far less perilous, and even quite pleasant. Call me crazy, but there’s something about the stillness of winter that I always find comforting.