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Intrigue and Inquiries Color the Librarian's Tale

The reference librarian of the library where I worked a good many years ago was petite, attractive, and always wore stunning outfits. Her high heels especially amazed the rest of the staff. We plodded around in comfortable shoes.

She was from Israel, and her energy was unflagging. It had taken her about a half hour to grasp the entire content and arrangement of our not-too-small library. But she did need help sometimes - with what she called "Americanisms."

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She came rushing up to me one afternoon and urgently whispered that we must telephone the FBI. Slightly alarmed, I asked what had happened.

She tipped her head back to the right and rolled her eyes, which I interpreted as a clue to the direction of the problem. She continued whispering. The man in question was reading the newspapers; she had delayed him by saying she would be free to help him in a few minutes.

I gazed over her head toward the corner where we kept out-of-town, out-of-state, and local papers. Sure enough, a man was reading.

She touched my arm and urged me to make the phone call at once. I would be a better contact than she. It began to sound like a scene in a John le Carre novel. I suggested she tell me what she was so concerned about. The FBI would ask me, I explained. I wasn't going to make any calls without a better idea of what was going on.

She then revealed to me that the man had asked her for a book on how to make money. Even her whispers conveyed her consternation at such patent evil.

I suppressed a smile. Just to see what she would say, I asked, "Did he say how he was interested in doing it?"

She frowned at me in distaste. He had not; and of course she had not asked such a thing. She would not aid him. In her first country, she informed me haughtily, it was a felony.

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I did smile then and explained. "He means he's interested in finding some kind of work to do. So he can make, ah, earn money." I said he was probably looking at the help-wanted ads in the paper right now.

She visibly relaxed, turning both palms upward in an expression of exasperation. "Another Americanism," she moaned. "Is there no end to them?"

She tapped away on her pretty high heels to find him an assortment of books on how to be successful in business ventures. And probably one on how to write a resume. She could probably have answered his questions herself with no trouble at all. Unless he threw her with another Americanism.

As the children's librarian, I had other encounters with bewildered individuals. Most of them were teenagers.

A boy came wandering up to my desk one day and said he was in a class studying the Civil War. I waited, but when he said nothing else I asked him how I might help. He told me he had to read a book on the Civil War. Any book. His girlfriend had suggested one, but he had forgotten the name of it.

"'Red Badge of Courage'," I supplied promptly.

He shook his head. That wasn't it. His girlfriend had said it was a thick one. Lots of pages and no pictures. It had been made into a movie.

"Not," words almost failed me, " 'Gone With the Wind'?"

That was it. Was it very long? Was it hard to read?

I wanted to say it was hard to hold. I hedged by telling him it depended on the individual and yes, it was a very long book. But he only had a couple of days left, he moaned. Didn't I have something shorter about that war?

I pushed Stephen Crane's book again. It was shorter. It was also a lot more horrifying and honest. Would anyone ever forget the scenes burned into memory once read? Would not the phrase "rendezvous with death" recall the horrors of battlegrounds? I did not say all of that to him, of course. Let him find it out for himself at his own speed.

Another request needed less deciphering. At two minutes to closing time, a teenager came rushing at me. He had to "get a story," but he couldn't remember the name of the book (a common failing, it seems). It was for a class, and he needed it now.

Why did so many wait until a few hours before their book reports were due? But my patience held, and I asked the usual questions. I had learned, over time, what questions best led to the answers we both were after.

"Can you give me some idea what this story is about?"

He clutched his head in both hands, stared at the ceiling, and told me some old guy fights a fish.

"Oh. 'Moby Dick'." I started to say that technically it was not a fish, but he interrupted me. That wasn't the one. That wasn't the name of it. He remembered that somebody went fishing in the ocean. All alone.

Ah. I told him he wanted "The Old Man and the Sea."

I loved dearly to watch these young, almost-men break into smiles when I hit it right. Now came the usual queries. Was it very long, was it hard to read?

"Short. Easy to read," I reassured him. Not so easy to read between the lines, but let him discover that for himself.

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