Yesterday I went to the Boston Public Library, main branch, to return an overdue book. Remind me never to get in this situation again.
I joined the line as two employees worked behind the counter. To my right, a tall, broad-shouldered man with obvious mental health issues was striding around the lobby and the area where we stood in line. He was agitated, talking to himself in a paranoid, possibly threatening, manner. He would jump around a bit between pacing and circling, frequently coming near the line I was in. He kept coming nearer; I found it menacing. Most of what he said made no sense but I heard him muttering about how "white women hate that." Yeah, we do. So knock it off.
I stared at the two people working at the counter, trying to make eye contact so they'd summon security. When I worked in a very genteel public space, our booth had a hidden "panic" button; surely they have them at the BPL. I got no reaction, even though this guy was striding around in their area, scaring their customers and and making a racket. They both chatted away with their current customers. Much too longwindedly, if you ask me. There were also at least two people working in the main lobby who also ignored Paranoid Guy when he went back in there.
I inched up until I was practically next to the man in front of me, a short, roundish fellow, eccentrically dressed and sporting an unusual beard — portions of it stuck straight out from his face, mohawk-style. I'd never seen anything like it, and had no desire to study it further. Normally I'd keep my distance from him, too, but he made a decent barricade.
No one was visibly panicking about Paranoid Guy, who kept talking angrily and circling closer and closer. Everyone in line looked at him and looked away. And looked again and shuffled slightly closer together and away from him.
A redheaded woman and a high-school boy joined me at the end of the line.
Of course, the whole time, one part of my brain was insisting, in my mother's voice: "Flee! It's not safe here. It's not worth it. Leave NOW!" Another area of my brain, the blasé, city-dwelling, T-riding part, was countering with, "The line is moving, the guy isn't focused on you, nobody else is paying attention, and you've got a heavy book to get rid of before you go food-shopping...."
Okay, Okay. Be cool. I stayed. But I stayed on High Alert. He was coming too close for comfort. He was impossible to ignore.
I admit I'm usually paranoid myself in the BPL, although I keep it to myself. It's a haven for the homeless and mentally ill with nowhere else to go. I was in the fiction stacks, years ago, when two security guards sneaked up behind a guy who was walking toward me with a large knife in his hand. They grabbed him by each arm and hauled him away, backwards. I reserve all of my books online now. I pick them up quickly, and I leave. I seldom do research or browse the stacks. Mostly, I keep alert and book it out of there as fast as I can, as the saying is.
Minutes passed. We had all inched up to stand as close to the counter as possible. I huddled next to Beard Man; Redhead huddled next to me. High-School Boy left.
When it was finally my turn at the counter, I leaned over and quietly said, "Do you want to call security about that guy over there?" The clerk looked at me blankly, not understanding. I guess one gets used to everything if one works around it long enough. I was now out of Paranoid Guy's direct path. I wanted to pay my fine and get the hell out. After all, some people carry knives. In the library.
I owed $1.10. I had no small bills, so I handed the clerk a twenty and a dime. He sighed. He riffled through his wallet. He said, "I don't have change. Can you come back another time?"
I said, "I risked my life to pay this fine. I'm not standing in this line again."
He took my money and went away to get change. I waited, ears pricked to whatever might be going on a few feet behind me. He returned with my $19. Timing my exit to avoid Paranoid Guy's perambulations, I left. Never to return. I have learned my lesson. It may only cost you a dime a day, but an overdue library book can be a dangerous thing.
Then I walked over to Whole Foods, avoiding the guy who was peeing against one of the columns of the Hynes as I walked under the arcade, as well as a drunken panhandling duo on Mass. Ave. City life...