My shelf life

I lovingly return books to their homes in the stacks -- I'm important

Rating: NNNNN

I love my job. I am at the very bottom of a vast and infinitely complex totem pole, the last sucker on a remote tentacle of the enormous and benevolent bureaucracy that is the Toronto Public Library system. I am a page I shelve the books.

I used, for years, to have a regular grown-up job, with regular grown-up responsibilities and regular grown-up pay, until it slowly dawned on me that I was becoming a regular grown-up, frustrated, unhappy bitch. So, last fall, I quit.

I made wallets out of duct tape and sold them on the Internet I got a part-time job selling popcorn at a movie theatre I spent a lot of time making little machines out of motors and scrap metal. Then, when my savings were about to run out, I happened to pass the library and see a Help Wanted sign in the window.

The requirements matched my skills to a T — successful applicants had to be over the age of 13, and literate. In order to establish that I met these requirements, however, I had to complete the labours of Hercules in the form of an application, a resume and cover letter, a telephone interview, a long and gruelling panel interview and a test.

(At the interview, some of the questions forced me to cast back to my high-school days as a less than exemplary Burger King employee. But I aced the test, which involved alphabetizing a handful of index cards, a la John Cusack in Being John Malkovich.)

Fast-forward two months, two pitiless, penurious winter months. I had been offered the job and was attending an orientation meeting. About 20 new pages, nearly all of them at least 10 years younger than me, and half a dozen nervous librarians were assembled in the sumptuous basement conference room at the Lillian Smith Library.

After being treated to a demonstration of ergonomically correct book handling, we were informed of our place in the cosmos. And the library, I gathered, is a sort of cosmos, comprising over a million volumes, scores of branches and rank upon rank of librarians, like the infinite orders of seraphim and cherubim, with us at the very bottom supporting the whole structure on our sturdy young shoulders.

Tiny cell

We pages, they told us, we shelvers of books and tidiers of tables, are essential to the operation of our branch, which is crucial to the functioning of the library system, which determines, in turn, the health of society at large. I was enchanted.

I felt like a tiny cell metabolizing away at the heart of some glorious organism, the way I imagine it feels to join the army, the Catholic Church or the Secret Service, only nicer. A flame of ambition kindled in my breast: to devote myself to the proper functioning of this noble machine the rest of my days, to sacrifice my life, if necessary, to the library, and, by implication, to humanity.

I have been working at the library four months, and I am pleased to report that it meets my highest expectations, and indeed surpasses them.

For instance, a fellow came to the library wearing electric-blue thong underwear over his face, a bagel on a string around his neck and a blazer covered in what appeared to be Gary Hart campaign buttons.

He and the librarian had a civil exchange about some outstanding fines on his record, and he left, and nobody batted an eyelid. After he was gone, we discussed some other outfits he had worn to the library and speculated about his background, but there was no ridicule, no irritating private-sector sense of superiority, only delight in the endless variety, the perpetual freshness of our neighbourhood.

As I went back to sorting and shelving, shelving and sorting, I felt myself, once again, a benevolent microbe pulsing through the bloodstream of that noble beast, Society.

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