Working in a public library means that I meet people from all walks of life every day - and more often than not people who are need of a kind face, a listening ear (or lip reader in my case) or a sense of belonging will open themselves up to us behind the counter...or out on the library floor.
It might be enough to smile and ask how they are ... but sometimes a little act of kindness is required.
There is a man who semi-frequently visits the library I work in ...for now we can call him William, and for reasons I do not know he is currently living under the small veranda of an empty shop front not too far away. Each time he has come to the library he has requested the same book - Catch 22, A Novel by Joseph Heller. Unfortunately, this is not a book we have on the shelves, so each time we placed a request for William to have a copy sent from another library.
And each time it came in we had no way of contacting William to say that it had arrived. He does not have a postal address for a traditional letter, or a mobile phone to receive a SMS, nor an email address for notifications. This means that Catch 22 would sit on the 'Holds' shelf waiting for a man who didn't know it was there. The system is automated, and the rotation of staff makes it unlikely that an individual would notice this book out of the hundreds they process each day.
For me this highlights how the seemingly simple things we take for grated become markedly difficult for anyone experiencing homelessness. Aside from the heartbreaking isolation, the undeserved, ill-informed judgement of passers-by, the fundamental narrowing of focus to the will to survive, and the potential fluctuations between fear and boredom...how frustrating that so much of daily life depends on something so beyond the control of the individual concerned.
Several times William came to see if the book had arrived, only to be told that he had missed the window of time available to anyone/everyone to collect a 'hold'. Most times he took this with good grace, but was clearly frustrated.
So I bought the book...
So last weekend I went to a book shop and bought a copy of Catch 22, for all of $14.95...and I took it to work hoping that William would come to the library soon. I knew he was still in the area as I often walked past his bed and belongings, always neat and tidy but unoccupied during the day.
Then on Monday while conversing with workmates upstairs in the workroom I saw William through the window, sitting out outside about a block away. I grabbed the book off my desk and went running out of the building and down the street, high heels and all, in case he moved on before I reached him. I sat next to him and asked how he was...and to be fair he was a little wary of me. I was in 'office wear' with a name badge, and I had ingratiated myself into his personal space without asking.
But then I explained who I was and that I had something for him. The look on his face was priceless, he was delighted to finally have in his hands the long awaited book.
Then I told him it was his very own copy, that he didn't need to bring it back to the library...he went very quiet, stood up, took my hand and cried...I cried a little too.
We talked a bit longer about why this book held meaning for him -that is not my story to tell. I said my goodbye and turned to leave, and William said 'it's my birthday on the 9th of October, this is like an early birthday present except it is the best birthday present I ever had. And don't you worry I have some plastic to keep it safe and dry'.
As I walked back to work I couldn't shake an inner rage, focussed on how many of us believe that our worthiness is shown by what we have ...when really our material possessions are not indicative of our character but only of our circumstance...and how much richer the world would be if we stopped to talk to the Williams of the world.
I know my life is better for discussing books with this man...and I hope he feels just a little more valued through what was really only a small act of kindness.