A man stood reading a book over another man’s shoulder at one of the tables in the library like it was a perfectly natural thing to do. When the sitting man turned around to ask the standing man what he was doing, the latter said they should take it outside. The sitting man got up and left in disgust. The standing man wobbled over to the desk near to where Paul was shelving books and approached the librarian.

“I was just reading a book over somebody’s shoulder, and he said that we should take it outside.” He looked like an orangutan, swaying his head and moving his flabby arms through the air. He wore a ripped tie dye t-shirt and a faded red baseball cap that matched his cheeks. “What should I do? Should I go tell security?”

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea,” the librarian said, humoring him.

Paul wanted to intercede but there was no time. In seconds, the man was running for the elevator with great urgency. He felt bad for the man who was the apparent instigator. He didn’t look capable of taking a child outside let alone a full-grown man. Maybe one day, he’d proposition the wrong person and get himself hurt, even killed.

Paul considered going down to security to see if the man was there but just then he was approached by a man in a bowtie asking for the location of trumpet sheet music. He showed the patron to the correct section and was off, running down the four flights of steps to the security office on the first floor.

While stunning, the grandiose structure seemed more like a modern-day coliseum than a library. Upper levels circled around the atrium, leaving the center hollow. The exits were obscured, which made it hard to find a way out. The skylight in the center of the six-story ceiling was one of the only things Paul liked about the building. It was shaped like the logo for the library, a seashell, but it reminded him of a pie cut into slices. A giant pie made of sky.

When he got to security, there was no sign of the man from upstairs. He ran back up the steps to go to the paging desk, where he was scheduled. There, a woman covered in tattoos was waiting with the call number of a book. Paul retrieved the book for her.

“Do you have a library card or something I can hold onto?” he asked her.

“Yeah, I got one somewhere in here.” She reached deep into the recesses of her handbag, pulled out a library card, and handed it to Paul like she was giving him something she’d been wanting to get rid of for years.

After she left, a small man with a big, maniac smile and an electric gleam in his eyes stepped up to ask Paul about Laughing Sal, the city’s creepiest attraction, a giant animatron with a demonic laugh.

“Did you see the latest video with Laughing Sal?”

“No, sorry I haven’t.” Paul looked at the patron, sympathy crawling through his black, piercing eyes.

***

Paul’s relief came to the desk, and he left for lunch. He got to the lobby to see a man with an iguana on his shoulder. He went outside where it was a typical San Francisco afternoon, all sun and wind. The air screamed with sirens and car horns and stank of piss and bleach. Across the street a sidewalk sale was happening—a bunch of CDs and DVDs, most with library barcodes still stuck on them, all scattered like little prizes on a dirty blanket. Next to the sale, an old Asian woman hovered over a trash can and pulled something out of it.

He turned onto Market Street where he passed an Arby’s, an X-rated movie house, and a bunch of shops that looked like they could close down tomorrow. The sidewalk was littered with everything from used needles to dirty condoms. An upscale eatery sat in the middle of all of this like a palace in a slum. There, a bunch of young customers spoke so loudly that it was easy for Paul to catch choppy fragments of their conversations. Someone said something about third party software. Another said something about taking an option off the table. Another said he could do something from his desktop in two minutes. Some sat alone while eating and staring at their phones.

He went to the cafe across the street in the Federal Building. It was an oasis in the midst of the Civic Center grunge. High, marble ceilings and hand painted walls with intricate flourishes carved into them.  A green and yellow streetcar rode by him. He loved these charming old buses just as much now as when he’d first moved here seven years ago from Boston. He looked up and spotted a stately tan brick building he hadn’t seen before. The top level was ornate, decorated with carved figures, its pointed roof rising up into the sky like a castle.

He passed a legless man who sat on a dirty, old wheelchair on the sidewalk like he was waiting for something that would never happen. He recognized the man. He’d helped him get a library card once.  He got back to the library entrance, where a drunk lay, passed out. A chicken on a leash stood looking over the man, who was apparently its owner, as if waiting for him to awaken.

Paul carefully sidestepped him and proceeded upstairs, where a cart of photography books needed to be shelved. While in the stacks, he overheard someone huffing and puffing in one of the quiet reading rooms off to the side. He went into the room to see a young fit man vigorously doing push-ups. When Paul asked him to stop, he refused. Popping up like a piece of bread coming out of a toaster, he loudly proclaimed that he was free to do what he wanted.

Back in the photography section, one of the regulars passed him by—a tiny woman with a toothless smile beneath her pointy nose. She had crippling arthritis and moved like her bones were held together with loose threads, and with the little bit of strength in her body, she carried a large, full trash bag on her back. One of the many sad stories who aimlessly roamed the library. She came into the building each day when it opened with the hordes of other people who had no place to go.

***

At the end of the day, Paul took the escalator down to the Muni station. As soon as he got to the bottom, he saw a scraggly man wearing a pink tutu, standing on top of an orange crate, and singing the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He took the train a couple stops, got off, and began walking uphill to his apartment. He hadn’t walked long when he came upon a group of people gathered on the sidewalk. They were taking videos of something with their phones. When he looked in the direction of where their phones were pointed, he only saw the aftermath of a car accident with three cars piled up and an ambulance truck. Two men in yellow jumpsuits were strapping a man to a stretcher.

“I caught the whole thing!” someone shouted.

Paul turned to see a young man, with a leather jacket and a face like a sponge, smiling big and bright as he bragged to the crowd.

“You got the guy getting hit?!” someone from the crowd said.

“Yeah, I got the whole thing!”

“What’d he look like? The dude who got hit?” another voice said.

“He was just some crazy, homeless guy,” the boy said. He held his phone in the air as if it were a trophy.

Paul moved as close as he could get to the victim in the stretcher when he heard one of the ambulance drivers say, “I think we lost him,” in a somber voice. He looked at the dead man lying in the stretcher, a red baseball cap pulled over his face. It was the man from the library who had been reading a book over another man’s shoulder. The man who’d been called ‘crazy.’

After a few minutes, most of the wild-eyed sane ones had dispersed, leaving trails of dust behind, on to their next adventure. Paul turned away from the scene, feeling more alone than he’d ever felt in his life. Just then, he saw a young girl across the street, staring into the empty scene, forlorn face, her hair in two ponytails. He moved closer to see a single tear rolling down her little face. Hope burned bright within him.

 

Grace Mattioli is the author of  Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees, Discovery of an Eagle, and The Bird that Sang in Color. These family drama books are available from all major online book sellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.