One thing I didn’t mention in my last post about Beck was that when I was young, one of the reasons that I especially liked Beck was that he seemed to be friends with a lot of homeless guys, or at least guys that looked the way that most of the homeless guys that I saw looked. There was the guitar playing dude in the liner notes of Mellow Gold, and then there was pretty much everyone that Beck was photographed with before 1995, and of course there were all the crazy awesome guys rambling around and destroying a house in the Steve Hanft-directed video for “Beercan”:
I liked this because when I was in my early teens I had a special affinity for homeless men. I spent a lot of time at the public library as a kid and an adolescent, and around that time I had begun to cultivate a deep sympathy for outsiders, people who dropped out of the race for money, fame, and respectability, as well as a deep suspicion of anyone whom I perceived as one of the great mass of men leading “lives of quiet desperation.” My favorite book was Walden, and I certainly romanticized homelessness, choosing to see it as a noble choice made by brave and wise idealists. My basic template for homeless people was probably some cross between Thoreau, Dolphus Raymond, Mr. Wendal, and a wandering Buddhist poet-monk mendicant. If they were drunks or mentally unstable I would have considered it to be society’s fault in some way, and I imagined that all they wanted was a hot meal and some basic respect, and that one of life’s great tragedies was that no one valued their wisdom and insight, nobody was paying attention to them or learning from their examples of voluntary poverty and non-attachment to material things. It’s probably obvious that I didn’t know a lot of homeless people very well, and I was clearly overlooking the bag men who were fiercely attached to their collection of shopping bags (and whatever treasures they had managed to hoard and carry with them).
In any case, from the time that I was 13 years old until I was probably 17 or 18, my dream when I grew up was to be a genius poet–only I would also be voluntarily destitute, probably homeless, and I would basically live in a public library and read great books most of the day. And instead of publishing any of my poems, what I’d do would be find the very best books in the library, incredible books, rare books, awesome books, but little known gems, and then write my poems in the margins of these books by hand, so that the only people who would ever read my poems would be people who picked up or checked out these other amazing books. It would be like a gift for anyone who already had great taste in literature. I’d imagine myself moving from town to town, from library to library, like a bardic Johnny Appleseed, spreading my genius secretly, handwritten beautiful poems of my own creation inside the leaves of great, but obscure, books. And then I’d imagine people checking out these books, and finding these poems and being blown away, and being deeply touched and moved and amazed, and trying to look up where these poems came from, or who wrote them, and never being able to find out, and having this incredible story and gift that they had received and could choice to share or do with however they wanted. Every once in a while, I’d tell someone, a friend usually, about this dream. Most people didn’t believe me, and those that did thought it was a stupid idea. It wasn’t. It was a really really good idea, and sometimes I’m sorry that I haven’t spent more time developing myself for the task.
So, I really enjoyed homeless people, and public libraries–which is fortunate, because homeless people and libraries also seem to have something of a mutual love affair. In many communities, public libraries provide vital space for dispossessed people, and the social services, humane treatment (and warmth) they provide are invaluable community offerings. In Madison, Wisconsin, where the city is investing heavily in constructing a major new downtown library, a local newspaper ran a thoughtful article last year about the need for the library to continue to serve both homeless and more traditionally housed patrons, and ways to balance the needs of various public constituencies. Librarians take this issue seriously, and the literature in the Library and Information Studies field on homeless patrons and social services is extensive, and professional organizations and activist groups of many persuasions are dedicated to this issue in some form or another. In 1969, a group of socially conscious members of American Library Association (ALA) formed the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), and since that time the group has done much to publicize important issues of social justice and has highlighted the activism of a number of dedicated librarians who have worked to combat inequality and various prejudices in their communities. 1990, the ALA adopted Policy 61, a document which “promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America.” With Policy 61, the ALA acknowledged that the poor are “affected by a combination of limitations, including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services” and concluded that “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.” The document lists 15 specific policy objectives, including one that makes direct reference to homelessness:
Promoting the publication, production, purchase, and ready accessibility of print and nonprint materials that honestly address the issues of poverty and homelessness, that deal with poor people in a respectful way, and that are of practical use to low-income patrons.
In 1996, members of the SRRT formed another more specific group, called the Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force in order to implement Policy 61 more fully in libraries across the country. This task force has collected a number of outstanding resources (they’re librarians, after all), and have done much to raise awareness of social problems and to democratize library offerings and operations. I admire their work tremendously, and am grateful for their existence. My full thoughts on libraries, social engagement, and homelessness are more properly the subject of another blog post, so I’ll save those for another occasion.
What got me thinking about all of this, besides the big post on Beck, was that I went to a library book sale today at the Madison Public Library. I don’t know if there’s anything that’s more appealing to me than a bookstore, or a book sale, or a library book sale. It’s like a drug for me, it really is. I’ve probably bought 75 books in the past 2 months at library book sales alone, and spent only around $100 on total purchases. How can such abundance be possible? How can the world be so good, so full, so rich in knowledge? How can I have so little time to read and learn so many interesting things and why are so many things so curiously engaging, beautifully written, and delightfully inviting? As I was carrying home my box of books (purchased for less than $20!) I was struck by how singular, and how remarkable it was that something so wonderful as a massive book sale could take place with so little fanfare, how it was considered ordinary–that it was in fact ordinary, a part of regular, routine life in our culture and in our city. No one was weeping for joy outside the library because of the sale, but neither was there anyone policing the shelves, or blocking people of a certain age, or gender, or race from entering the sale, perusing the books of their choice, or purchasing them. As I paid for my purchases, two older people were sitting at a folding table, conversing about something as incomprehensible to me as gall bladders or bridge strategies. They hardly looked up at me as I paid, and I thought at that moment, how wonderful it was to be American at this particular time, and how grateful I was to be literate, to have been encouraged to love reading and to stimulate my curiosity, and to save enough money from my meager paycheck for things that are really important, like poems and ideas and photographs of the earth from above.