Friday, September 22, 2006

Of sandals and sealing wax

She showed up in the library over 10 years ago and we called her Crazy Susan. Libraries are like the kind of home Robert Frost wrote about in The Death of the Hired Hand - "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." As long as you don't greatly disturb anyone, spit on the floors or make a bomb shelter out of the books, you have as much right as anyone else has to be there.

And she was. There. Four or five days a week, for hours, using the old electric typewriter on the second floor, bashing out page after page of God-knows-what, harassing government officials on the student phone, standing at the circulation desk pulling staff members into conversational mazes with no entrance or exit point.

She's bright and well-educated, I think. Her vocabulary and confidence will fool you at first. You listen, automatically, and if you aren't quite following what she's saying, you'll figure it's just that you weren't listening carefully enough, or need more details. So you'll ask. You'll say, "I'm very sorry, but I'm not sure what regulation you're referring to," or "I'm sorry, but I'm not quite sure how to help you with that, can you be more specific about what you're looking for?" In any event, you'll start with, "I'm sorry..." because Susan has a professorial air and you'll assume, because you're at work in a library, that whatever she's talking about has something to do with searching for information.

Enter the maze. She will continue to talk until you realize that nothing she says connects - at least nothing you can access connects. Sometimes, she'll stop dead, listening to things you can't hear and then, as if a switch were thrown, she'll plunge back in. There is no polite way to stop the flood of words, short of getting up and leaving.

I used to dread her appearances. A political activist gone mad, a civic-minded citizen obsessed with community but without the gravity of a sane mind, Susan orbits into diatribes both acrimonious and aggrieved. She wears on your nerves. She demands your time.

We felt a little ashamed, my coworkers and me, for calling her Crazy Susan. But she was difficult to like. Still, she had a right to be there, and no one was going to throw her out for having a particularly exasperating form of mental illness.

We felt ashamed but also admired her a little. It's hard not to wonder what happened to her life, this older woman with the fabulous vocabulary and mind set on overdrive. She wears whatever bright pinks and purples and emerald greens can be found at the Salvation Army and keeps her white hair combed into two jaunty ponytails. Her blue eyes are alive and sharp. If she is poor and mad in our eyes, in her own, she is a force to be reckoned with.

J, one of my coworkers, is more patient than me, and Susan adopted her. A less than enviable adoption, given the frequency of her visits and the length of time she can keep you from your work. We devised a system, because J could not force herself to be rude, where I would leave the office and phone in a fictional emergency so that J could excuse herself.

The day I stopped calling her Crazy Susan, I was alone in the office, slowly being buried by incoming paperwork and Not In The Mood. Susan loomed in the doorway, looking pointedly towards J's empty desk. J's father had been gravely ill and was dying. She'd been out of the office, off and on for weeks at that point. I had no choice but to engage...

"J's not here, Susan."
"When will she be back?" Alright. Alright. No need to be crappy and no need for her to keep coming in looking. I don't want to divulge details of J's life, but...
"Susan. There's serious illness in her family. I don't know when she'll be in." Susan nods. She holds her hand out.
"I knew something was wrong," she says, "and I brought her this to cheer her up." In her hand is a single serving package of chocolate pudding.

Susan doesn't have enough to eat. Susan, as far as I know, may not even have a home. Tears start to well up in my eyes as I absorb the kindness of the offering.

"That's so nice of you," I tell her, "but I don't think it would keep. I'll tell her you came in. I'll tell her you brought it for her, okay? I know that will make her feel better."

After that, I called her Susan.

Tonight, Susan rode the bus home with me. She talked about the mini-eco-systems that exist all along the south shore, and I said how this one big tree, blown over by Hurricane Juan, still comes into leaf each year, with only a root or two left in the soil. Susan rambled about how they should have community Christmas dinners for old people and single women, and about how Bin Laden could be so rich, with all those possibilites to do good or live a beautiful life and choose instead to promote death. Somewhere in there, there was something about shipping 40,000 pairs of sturdy sandals somewhere- or maybe, she said, they should send running shoes - and didn't I think they deserved to be held to some kind of standard? I only got bits. The rest was in her mind. At mile two of the bus ride, trying to follow was like attempting to pick my way out of a snarl of barbed wire. I hung in. Trying my best to catch the bits I could and respond to them.

And she was smiling when I got off. She looked happy.

I was smiling too.