Someone is shouting in the reading room, which is odd enough for any time of the week, let alone a Tuesday morning, when the room is usually dead. Today however it's quite busy - I blame the ninety-degree heat (plus humidity) outside for driving people into our climate controlled space. But as I look up from my computer I realize that there seems to be a confrontation in progress at one of the tables along the South wall. Surely it hasn't been hot for long enough to drive us all batty, or has it?
A regular patron comes up to the desk. "Can you help me? There's a person telling me that she doesn't want me sitting across from her."
This is a new one. I smile at the regular, a gentle and unassuming man who almost seems apologetic even to bring the matter to my attention, and amble over to the patron who was yelling just a few moments ago.
"Is there something wrong?"
A woman in her twenties looks at me with an irritated expression on her face. "Yes, this person just sat at my table without asking me or anything."
"Huh," I say, choosing my words carefully. "Well, this is an open reading room. People can sit wherever they want."
"'Open reading room'?" she asks. "I've never heard of that before. It must be an East Coast thing."
As I attempt to process this observation, the woman continues:
"I'm from the West Coast. We don't have open reading rooms there."
I'm fairly certain that this is not the case, but I wisely choose not to contradict her.
"Well, this room gets pretty full so you're going to have to share the tables."
"I hope with someone my own age, at least!"
I frown. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much age difference between the two patrons. Something isn't quite right here, but as long as she's gotten the message it's not really my business to get to the bottom of it. Nevertheless the woman continues to talk:
"I'm from California. I used to go to X university, but I didn't want to get the Ph.D. there so I came here to get my Masters."
Wow. Non sequitur city. I nod pleasantly, smile, and back away slowly, hoping that this is the end of the disturbance. But no sooner do I sit down and go back to my email than I hear her raising her voice again at a different patron.
"Are you a Muslim?" I can hear her ask the clearly surprised young man, who is unaccustomed to being challenged upon taking a seat in this room. Rather than submit to her interrogation he simply gets up and chooses a chair at another table, but unhappy with this exchange I walk back to where she's sitting and clear my throat.
"Excuse me, but you can't keep yelling at the other patrons if they want to sit down at your table. There is no reserved seating here."
The woman looks at me somewhat blankly. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was trying to study in the dining hall but people kept on sitting down at my table."
Putting on my best customer service face, I try to be helpful. "If you want more personal space, you could always try the main reading room up on the second floor. There are many more tables there."
She dismisses this suggestion with a shake of her head. "No thanks, I want to be as close to the basement as possible."
I open my mouth and close it again, pretty much at a loss now. "Well, this room tends to fill up during the day, so you'll have to be considerate to the other patrons, okay?"
"What's your name?" she asks instead of acknowledging that she understands my request.
Uh, oh. Here we go. I tell her and prepare for the situation to escalate. I've never had to 86 a patron from my room before, and to tell you the truth I wasn't really looking forward to doing it now. But instead of loudly demanding to see my supervisor or the head librarian or the dean of the college she considers my name thoughtfully:
"Tom, huh? We don't have many Toms out on the West Coast. That must be an East Coast thing."
There's really no sense in responding, so I just stand there.
"I'm from California."
I do my best to smile again and break eye contact so as to return to my desk, because if I stay I'm pretty sure this conversation isn't going to come to a meaningful conclusion anytime soon. Mercifully the woman returns to her studies and I get away again, although as patrons file into the room I wince as they approach her table. As luck would have it, however, no one decides to sit opposite her, so the room enjoys about an hour or so of Tuesday-morning normalcy before she begins to make noise again.
This time she's laughing hysterically to herself. At this point I'm pretty much ready for anything to happen, but before I can worry about the situation I notice that the woman is packing up her things and getting ready to leave. Fair enough. As she walks past the desk, though, she stops for a moment:
"I'm going to go home to study because it's too hard for me to concentrate. You guys are too good-looking!"
Wow. Just, wow.