I went to the new library branch to pick up a book I had reserved. It was an excuse to check out the new digs. It takes me all of five seconds to meander its circumference.
I easily locate the reserved books section. And I swiftly find my reservation. But I can’t find the self-service counter.
A solitary, silver-haired librarian is sitting at the front desk. She has not looked up from her screen since I walked in. Sensing my approach, she lifts her face and smiles, “Ah, you must be looking for the self-service computer.”
“Yes, I am,” I smile back.
“Well, we don’t have one yet. But there is a plan to get one. In the meantime, you’ll have to speak to me.”
“No problem,” I say, “there are fewer and fewer chances to interact with people these days.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
Then she asks, “Your first time here?”
“Uh-huh. How’s it going?”
Like this, we make small talk. I’m not much for small-talking, but the librarian, I soon learn, is eager to tell me all about the place.
It’s getting busier. It’s small, so we only hold a collection of books, which we’ll rotate. But you can reserve your books, and have them transferred here from other branches. It’s beautiful space to work in, especially in the morning, when the sun shines through the windows. She says “I hope you come again” at least three times throughout our interaction.
I nod, thinking that it’s not really that convenient for me. But I don’t tell her this.
I find myself itching to leave. I could say I have somewhere to be, and I do, but I’m in no rush. My impatience is a personality trait exemplified by the modern era.
But then I think:
May be she is lonely? May be this is the only real interaction she’s had all day? May be it’s the first chance she’s had to feel useful today?
A Kurt Vonnegut piece in A Man without a Country comes to mind. How he needs to buy an envelope and his wife tells him that he can order a packet of a thousand online. He refuses, and ‘wastes’ hours meandering down the street, interacting with a stall vender, and buying a single envelope. He then heads off to the post office to interact with another human being to buy stamps and post off his documents. This interaction includes asking the clerk to weigh the envelope to make sure he buys the correct number of stamps.
Loneliness, Mr Vonnegut would say, is a “terrible disease”.