I’m at Starbucks sitting next to a well-dressed elderly woman who is pushing five feet. She’s teeny tiny. She paid and then claimed her table next to me. She clonked down her giant old lady purse in a chair and pulled out a hardcover library book, which she placed gently on the table. She went back to the drink counter and claimed a venti caramel frappuccino, piled up with whipped cream, and carried it over with two hands. And then she sat and read her book while eating her venti caramel frappuccino with a spoon. She’s now getting down to the bottom, so she switches to a straw and slurps up the rest. She turns her cup and I can read the handwritten name on the clear plastic: Arlene. Arlene is adorable. She finishes her drink, marks her place in her book with a floral bookmark, closes it, pats her mouth delicately with a napkin, gets up and throws away her messy cup. What a precious encounter.
There are characters all around. I’m starting to pay attention. I decided to take a three-day weekend from the Pasadena Public Library to celebrate a great national holiday, so I’m still trying to get back in the swing of things after a fun-filled weekend. Incidentally, the Pasadena Public Library has provided it’s fair share of characters in the sometimes-boring narrative called, just like Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life.
I will first say I love the Pasadena Public Library. It’s on Walnut and Garfield, just north of City Hall and east of the gothic-style Episcopal Church. A stone fountain in a leafy courtyard welcomes you to the modern-looking, white washed library. Inside, though, the library is all wood and history and high ceilings. I sit at large lamp-lit tables next to walls full of encyclopedias and they actually kick you out if you try to talk on your cell phone in the quiet area (as I found out last week while I was whispering fire updates with my mother). To be fair, this is coming from someone who loved the University of Denver library, in all it’s hideous orange glory and round study carrels with stains from the 1970’s. I’m just a library person.
Due to the Pasadena Public Library’s hushed magic, I am a regular there, so much that I’ve made friends with a man working at the circulation desk who waves at me every time I pass to and fro from the bathroom, and also another fellow who works in social work and tends to read giant old books and take lots of notes on legal pads. He’s there every day, and sits right by the bathroom, and he also waves at me every time I pass. I appreciate the friendliness, I really do, but it gets to be a lot of waving. The bathroom, incidentally, is where some of the magic of the library started to wear off and was in turn replaced with the eccentric personality of a 200-pound African American homeless woman. I met her last week post-large coffee when I walked into the three-stall bathroom and found her leaned over an open suitcase brimming with what looked like costumes. I shimmed past—it’s really a small bathroom for such a large library—and entered one of the stalls.
“How tall you, girl?” she asked. I was otherwise occupied in said stall, which made this conversation rather inopportune. “Do you play basketball?”
“Oh, well, I used to,” I sort of yelled through the stall. (To add insult to injury I was actually wearing the blue t-shirt I own that says, “No. I don’t play basketball.” Okay, fine, I wasn’t actually wearing it. But I do own one.)
“Yeah? You tall. Tall and white and youngin’ that’s bad. I just heard ‘bout these people who snatch you on the street. They human traffickers. They kidnap you and steal yo’ identity and then they ship you off to Eastern Europe and they made yo’ a whore.”
“Oh dear,” I said. I reluctantly left the safety of my stall.
“Yeah. I know that ‘cause I hang out with all the rappers down in Hollywood. I hang with them, but I don’t no more. Them’s why I’m homeless, the rappers, ‘cause I was snitchin’ on ‘em.”
“Oh dear.” I quickly darted around her and washed my hands.
“Snitchin’ on them rappers who do all that shit. I’d do it again. You be careful,” she said.
Perhaps because I had my rose-colored glasses on for the first weeks I was working at the library, but I’ve just started to notice all the homeless people there. They are alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking.
Several days later, I was at outside at the patio coffee cart ordering myself another large coffee (you now might see why I make friends as I shuttle back and forth to the bathroom). Anyway, as I stirred in my milk, I noticed a motly group of six sitting around one of the cast-iron patio tables. They were all African-American, varying ages. In the middle of the table lay an assortment of hodge-podge wrapped packages and a small birthday cake with a single candle. An adult wearing stripped red tights, a tu tu, and a tiara—obviously dressed to the nines—was talking and smiling. It was a little birthday celebration and I could only assume it’s participants were homeless. It was precious and it was heartbreaking.
Both snitchin’ lady and the birthday party illuminate a side of Pasadena I don’t much see in my well-treaded path. So I pay attention. I’ve realized that rather than curse, again and again, why it’s always me who meets the weirdos, I’ve decided to relish the fact that I get to meet all sorts of interesting people. And then I get to write about all the weirdos in the world, who are in fact probably not weird, just… homeless. Or maybe have an awesome story if you just took the time to ask which rappers they snitched on rather than slipping out the door.
(But also when you pay attention you get to notice little old ladies named Arlene who eat whipped cream and caramel with a spoon, and that’s nice.)