On My Mind


The light changes. A cover has opened, slit of sun beaming into the darkness, a ha-ha neiner-neiner taunt transmitted from the world of wind and spit. In the quick second between dandelion shaft blinking back to onyx, a gentle violence occurs, crinkling followed by thump.

A book has been returned.


With that thump, the movable floor inside the Returns bin lowers almost imperceptibly; a single book isn’t that heavy, after all. But then the flap clinks, signaling another, another, another, dark to light, light to dark, typeset words in freefall. Absorbing the weight of pages and ideas, springs stretch, and the catching floor gradually sinks.

It’s designed to protect the books, this bin is. When it’s empty, the floor rests near the top, quick purchase for incoming books slithering through the slot. As Returns accumulate, the floor gradually descends, earlier Returns nesting and bolstering newcomers so no volume sustains damage from a traumatic plummet.

Eventually, when enough readers have honored the socialist agreement that cooperative sharing benefits the collective, the thing is full.

It’s time to empty the cart.


Heavy with books come home, the chockablock bin is rolled from sidewalk through the open garage door into the space where library workers await the next scheduled curbside pick-up. In between appointments, they busy themselves with the unseen tasks — parents emptying the dishwasher at 10 p.m. while the kids sleep — that keep the place functioning.

In May of 2020, it’s only recently that the library, hobbled by lockdown and layoffs, has begun to accept Returns; after months of being asked to hold onto their items because there isn’t enough staff to process even a portion of the 57,000 books checked out in the weeks before closure, fretting patrons can finally hand back the books they’ve been fostering — a permission joyfully greeted by hundreds of conscientious worriers whose pandemic anxieties latched onto the abuse that is an overdue book. With so much still unknown about transmission of the novel virus, and per Institute of Museum and Library Services guidelines, all Returns spend three days of quarantine in the bin before rejoining the organized cacophony of the stacks. The bins fill and fill, with extra bins transported from the (closed) branches, lest Returns outpace processing capability.

For 72 hours, the jumbled books hang in limbo, neither well nor sick, welcome but not admitted, the romances discreetly smoldering, poetry tautly observing, YA sullenly pouting, memoirs pointedly recounting, board books happily clapping, references clinically mapping, fantasies wildly conjuring, mysteries slyly twisting.

Laced throughout, there are murderous thrillers, their pages potentially hosting death.


He reaches into the bin, beginning to sort the Returns onto three carts — this one upstairs to Reference, that one to Fiction and Media, this little guy back to Youth Services. Sorting provides a kind of relief, a bit of variety to the hours, along with posing an elegant challenge: Will these six novels stack nicely and work well into the cart? Can he frame them as just-so pieces of a puzzle, thereby maximizing how many books ultimately fit onto the tiered cart shelves? Even more, there’s the satisfaction of seeing long-requested books re-entering the circle of circulation, passing from one set of hands to the next, fulfilling the promise of the communal contract.


He pauses to examine the book in his hand. It’s by James Patterson. So many of them, always, are by James Patterson.

What’s going on here? Why is this plastic cover so rough?

He holds it closer, then farther away. Why are parts of this cover…melted? And why, if it’s been held to flame, is the entire cover not scorched? Has some punk with a lighter been working on fine motor skills, selectively burning spots of the book’s cover?

Confounded, reminded anew that just when he thinks he’s seen everything, there’s a surprise, he sets the damaged book aside. He doesn’t yet know who, but somebody will pay.

Shrugging, he reaches in and pulls out a second book from the same clump of Returns. It’s another James Patterson, this one titled The 18th Abduction, except the 18 seems to have been abducted by fire, not only melted from superficially but also burned into the cardboard of the cover.

Well now. He reaches in again, pulls out a third bizarrely melted James Patterson, then, on the fourth pull, the relief of a tragically wonky Catherine Coulter. At least the arsonist patron has range.

Previously, this worker has seen a bra returned in the book drop. He’s seen a single shoe in the bin. There was the ten-inch Buddha head someone left in the library, the base of a lamp decorated with figures of stallions. He knows from experience that when a patron asks if they can borrow a pair of scissors, the follow-up question should be, “Do you want them so you can cut your nails?” This worker has loaned the library phone to someone who needs to arrange pick-up of their pet’s ashes, and he’s been told that every Minnesota state senator will be called and complaints filed if the angry patron isn’t allowed out check out books. He’s heard monologues about the surveillance tactics of gangstalking; he’s handed out Kleenex to mop spontaneous tears.

But melted book covers is a new one.

A reader himself, the worker imagines a scenario. The burning on three of the abused volumes feels deliberate since it’s focused on the lettering, so he pictures a guy in his fifties in a wood-paneled apartment, soft body flopped into a tan velour recliner, brain plagued by Covid boredom. He’s at the point where he not only spends his days in the chair; he sleeps there, too, in that stained, smelly recliner, sipping from a half-drunk can of Red Bull on the side table at 3 a.m. when he gets up to pee. He watches some shows, cruises some illicit internet sites, but mostly, there’s nothing to do, no place to go, no one to talk to. He’s read all the books — read them twice — and he’s in Month Two of lockdown, frustrated and fragile and maybe not completely in control of his impulses anymore. So he’s flicking his lighter because he smokes, of course he smokes, why wouldn’t you smoke when all the world’s a hellscape, and he’s holding, sort of slackly at first but then with purpose, one of those g.d. James Patterson thrillers, and before he quite knows what he’s doing, because he’s just lounging in his recliner like he always does, wishing for something to be different, even a little different, he’s using his Bic to develop a new craft, one involving detailed burning of public property in faintly musty private spaces.

For sure, the library worker decides as he reaches into the bin for the next book — this one blessedly unmolested — that’s what happened. Recliner Guy found a way to bring sparks to tedium.


It ends up being a woman in her eighties.

Perplexed as he looks at the patron information on the computer screen, the worker revises the scenario he’s already cast, deciding her black sheep son has been using her card to check out books as fodder for his craft, and now Mom is going to have to pay for the damages. There’s no way an octogenarian with delicately wrinkled topography and a lemon-colored cardigan over her shoulders even in 78 degrees would burn books.

Poor lady, having to cover her ne’er-do-well son’s vandalism. He better apologize properly, or she might need to limit his recliner time and start replacing his Red Bull with Ensure.


The Arrowhead Library System sends out a weekly newsletter called The Weekly Weeder. A few weeks after discovering the melted books, he’s perusing the Weeder when his eyes are drawn to an article linked from CNN.

Slowly, his eyebrows rise as he reads the words, “Please don’t microwave your books to prevent transmission of Covid.”

Huh. In a twist worthy of a Catherine Coulter suspense novel, it turns out Grandma did the damage.

Reading the article, he sees examples of books from other library systems where the microchips and aluminum antennae of their RFIDs had, when microwaved by uneasy patrons, burned through covers. In the case of his library, the melting had occurred at the flash point of an elderly, at-risk patron intersecting with foil-embossed titles. Where, he wonders, would metallic material look best on the cover of Grandma Had a Microwave?

Weeks before, when the mystery remained unsolved, the library had sent the book-cooking patron a bill. In short order — no phone calls of explanation, no pleas for understanding, no attempts to pawn the behavior off on her son — a check arrived.

The cover of Grandma Owns Her Damage would, of course, have every letter embossed with metal, the “s” a dollar sign.


Technically, she owns the books now. However, even though she’s gone on to check out new items (James Patterson has written 147 novels), she hasn’t attempted to arrange pick-up of the burned books.

So there they sit, stacked in his work area next to his curated Special Collection of Patron Left-Behinds:

the stallion lamp base,

a child’s bike helmet with a unicorn horn shooting out the top,

a pair of glasses from the 2017 solar eclipse when supplies ran short, and enthusiasts resorted to hoarding (perfect justice: cloudy that day),


seatbelt webbing fashioned into a waist belt and printed with the words THE PUNISHER.

And so, as it goes in the public library, some perfect weirdos with a complicated backstory

have found a home.


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On My Mind


About ten years ago, my mom sent an email, kvetching that the city where she lived was spending four million dollars to redo all the street corners.

Just so people in wheelchairs could roll up and down curbs.

FOUR MILLION DOLLARS for a few people, she groused.

Even without the smell of smoke jumping six inches off his body, his brown teeth revealed the habit. His stringy, shoulder-length hair — just turning to gray — brushed the shoulders of a snowmobile jacket. No one had seen him before, but the library tends to see new people on snowy days.

Needing help to get on the wi-fi, a flood of words parting the air before him, the guy steered himself toward the workers at the circulation desk. “Hey, yeah, so my phone doesn’t work right now, and I need to make some calls over the internet because I have some things to arrange – like, I gotta meet my landlord.” No problem, a worker assured him, bending his head over the guy’s phone. As he pointed to the screen, leading the patron from click to click, the patron’s deluge of words continued to wash over bystanders.

Eventually, in a kooky end stop to his tale of phones and landlords, the guy blurted to his wi-fi helper, “You ever heard of Pinterest?”

Sure he had. As media support to the masses, library workers tend to know the platforms. Curious as to where the question was headed, wi-fi helper nodded and asked: “Are you on Pinterest?”

Oh hell yeah, the smoky patron was more than just “on Pinterest.” In fact, he puffed proudly to the library worker, “I’ve got something on Pinterest that’s had over a million downloads.”

Unflinchingly supportive, the worker raised his eyebrows to convey awe. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You should try to figure out how to make some money off that!”

The patron agreed: “Yeah, yeah, I should make some money off it, ‘cause then I could be in the Bahamas, sitting on a beach, drinking a beer with Jimmy Buffet. But I can’t figure out how to make a cent off this stuff. I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg calling me, Jeff Besos, too; they’re all gettin’ in contact with me, and still I can’t make any money off my thing.”

Realizing his phone was successfully connected to the wi-fi, he waved it in the air with a flourish as he headed outside to do business.

Popular rightwing meme on Pinterest

Less than five minutes later, he was back. “Hey, you guys got a phone I can use? Mine isn’t working. I can’t make my calls.”

“Sure,” said a different library worker — the one who bike commutes year-round — “we can do that for you. Just tell me the number, and I’ll dial it.” In short order, the smoky patron was holding the receiver, making arrangements to meet up with a buddy. “Much appreciated,” he called over his shoulder a minute later to the library workers, his hand already cupping the pack of cigarettes in his pocket in anticipation of air without rules.

In December of 2019, a thread on Facebook disintegrated from complaining about how slow the city of Duluth was to plow residential streets after a massive snowstorm into mocking the funding and space devoted to bike lanes in some well-trafficked areas. One wit dismissed: “We live in a climate where 10% can only use [them] 35-40% of the year . . . there is no sense to it. It’s for tourists.”

Five minutes later — the length of time it takes to finish a deeply inhaled smoke — the patron was back. “So, a while back I checked out a bunch of movies from the public library in a different city, and now they’re really late, at least a month, and I was wondering if you guys can do something about that?”

Unfortunately, the worker had only this counsel: “Because they are located in different systems, our library doesn’t ‘talk’ to that other library, so you’d have to directly contact the library you checked them out from.”

The smoky patron didn’t get this far in life without some moxie. “But I was thinking you could call them for me?”

The library worker didn’t get this far in his day without some patience. “Sure, I can do that. Let me look up the number, and I’ll dial it for you.”

Within moments, the patron again held the receiver, again negotiating a plan. “Yeah, I’ve got movies I checked out from you, and they’re really late. Can you help me out? I couldn’t return them because I was down in Brooklyn Center, kind of stuck down there.” He paused. Then, elaborating, he cryptically added, “Man, that was a dark trip.”

In a different location but a sharing a common mission, the library worker on the other end of the phone line created a plan for the movies’ return.

Wrapping up the call, the smoky patron nodded. “Okay, I’ll bring them in Monday.” Handing over the receiver, he again thanked his team. “I’m glad you guys helped me call them ’cause you saved me a lot of money there.”

With that, the patron, well satisfied, exited the building.

A crony of the Koch Brothers, Randal O’Toole asserted in 2016:

Whatever the service levels, [public] transit just isn’t that relevant anymore to anyone . . . more than 95 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and of the 4.5 percent who don’t, less than half take transit to work, suggesting that transit isn’t even relevant to most people who don’t have cars.

The patron’s next cigarette went quickly. Four minutes later, he ambled up to the circulation desk once more.

“I need to call the animal hospital and check on my cats. Can you dial that number for me?”

The bike-commuting library worker obliged. It’s what they do.

Plus, there was the spectacle of it all. This time, the handset recognizing his grip by now, the smoky patron opened negotiations with disconcerting directness, asking the unsuspecting employee at the animal hospital:

“You got Wiggles’ ashes?”

Clawing toward comprehension, the recipient of the question strangled out something akin to “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Yeah, my cat, he died there. You cremated him and put him in an urn, right? And you drew his name WIGGLES on the urn, right?” From this line of inquiry, the smoky patron obtained the information he needed. Shifting topics, he announced, “Okay, now I gotta talk about my other cat. I think I need him tested for worms. How much is it going to cost to get a full test for worms? I need to know the exact amount, ‘cause I got $100 in my pocket, and I gotta take a taxi about ten miles, so I need to know exactly how much it’s gonna cost to be sure I have enough. I have his poop with me, so you can test it for the worms, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he’s got worms. He gave me a look today. I had another Coon cat once, and when he gave me that look, it was after someone had died in my house. Once the cat had seen death, he gave me that look.”

Knowing, from hours, days, years of experience that the storyteller was gaining steam, the library worker moved closer, signaling wrap it up. Not one to abuse privileges, the patron accepted it might be time for another smoke. “Oh, yeah, okay. I’m in the library. I gotta go. I’ll bring the poop. But before I get there, can you find my Wiggles?”

In 2017, New York Observer writer André Walker tweeted: “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.”

Business handled, the smoky patron — a “one-time” drop-in on a snowy day — headed again toward the exit doors, out to the busy street where a bus stopped every five minutes,

waiting as dedicated riders, challenged by limitations of terrain or road access, tossed their bikes into the rack on the front;

depositing the retiree who’d chosen not to own a car but who felt less alone when she attended the library’s Social Knitting for Seniors;

idling while the wheelchair ramp lowered for the regular with cerebral palsy, a young man who liked to roll down a few blocks to Starbucks for a treat;

dropping off the frazzled single mom with two kids who liked to play games in the big building with all the books;

picking up the downtown office worker who’d have liked to make more than $12/hour one day so she could start paying down those credit cards;

providing a blast of warmth to the crew of rough twenty-year-olds who fought, loved, and used loudly and publicly;

transporting a rainbow of people from the west end, the east side, up over the hill — those hundreds of individuals who relied on kind hearts and public services to get through their days;

pulling away from the shelter with a blast of exhaust in the frigid air;

leaving behind a pony-tailed man — head bent as he lit a cigarette — who was waiting for his taxi, a jumpy talker of a guy who called out to a passing acquaintance, “Hey, you need a ride? I’m about to go over the bridge to pick up my Wiggles.”

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It all started with 23-year-old Lilya, a charming and ebullient worker in the Language Center at the university. One night, as she was sending me voice messages to practice her English, she went on excitedly about a recent purchase of some used books. In short order, she was telling me it was her dream to one day read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other classics in English — but that books in English are difficult to find in Belarus, and when they are found, they are unaffordable.
“Sweeheart,” I messaged her in response. “I brought a stack of novels to read while I am here. The decision is made: I am leaving them with you when I go.”

In her next message, Lilya was crying.
When I wrote about this interaction — and how I hadn’t realized how strong the desire is in Belarus to get hands on books in English — my friends and family, dedicated book readers who understand this passion, sprang into action.

From a variety of corners, there were offers: “I will send that sweet girl some books. What should I send?”

Within an hour, a box of books was on its way through Amazon Global. Within a few days, an envelope of books was in transit.
When I went into the Language Center to hang up my coat before teaching my weekly lesson, I slipped the first shipment of books next to Lilya’s laptop.

The moment she spotted them there, it was as though the sun had been hung in the sky for the first time. Lilya cried again. Her colleagues in the office gathered around appreciatively to admire and fondle each volume, slowly turning the pages, in awe at the sight of the words.
It was in that moment I started to realize something: it wasn’t only Lilya who was craving the opportunity to read books in English.
Then Olga, the director of the Language Center, said matter-of-factly, “It is my dream to one day start a lending library through the Center. We have so many students coming in and asking, ‘Do you have any books in English I can borrow?’ And I always tell them no, but that I hope one day we will have such a thing.”

You don’t have to tell me twice.
You love English? You love books? You have a visitor who loves English and books and who believes in very few things, but she absolutely believes in the civic good done by and the transformational power of libraries?
Oh, WE WILL GET YOU A LENDING LIBRARY, MY FRIENDS. There will be a lending library.
At first, I thought the library would be small, consisting of the 14 novels I brought with me for personal reading.
But then. Those generous-hearted friends and family in the States kicked into action. Some of those who were gathering books for Lilya realized they could make contributions that could have an even larger impact.
Over the next couple months, as boxes and envelopes of books kept arriving, I learned to negotiate the lines, bureaucracy, and language barriers at the post office.
And when the first stack of books was set onto the big white table in the Center, and Olga realized her far-off dream was actually happening, she cried.
The books kept coming — from a fierce former student who always gets the job done; from a purple-haired slayer in England (shipped twice because they were returned the first time); from one of my high school speech coaches who, in her retirement, breathes libraries; in the suitcase of a go-getter pal who came to visit; from a friend in Oregon whose compassion is built into her marrow; from a fellow blogger who said, after her first shipment arrived, “Now I’m going to send the John Lewis graphic novel trilogy”; from my neighbor across the street and a book group that has been meeting for more than 45 years; from my husband who collected and humped more than 50 books in his suitcase at Christmas time.
So the stacks grew. A plan was made for building a shelving area in a new, dedicated Language Center room across the hall from the main office.
As a few of us gathered the other day to celebrate and document the stacks of books — to appreciate the glory of this burgeoning library before I depart — we laughed, we chatted, we talked about books we have loved, we recommended books from the stacks, we peered over each other’s shoulders.

In a disheartening world of oligarchs, standoffs, violence, and petulant one upmanship, there was, during a half hour my heart will never forget, a small corner of the world where a group of readers rejoiced in the generosity and kindness of strangers.
So thank you, Deanna, Mia, Michelle, Sue, Jan, Shari, Mary Beth, and Byron.
And, of course: thank you, Lilya.

Because it all started with you.

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