A man came up to me at the service desk today, gestured to a book that we had on display nearby, and said, “Mary Higgins Clark … I’ll Walk Alone. Isn’t that a song? Do I need to start singing, now?” I didn’t answer his question, but smiled and continued checking out his items as though he hadn’t said anything.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m including this harmless exchange in a post with this title. Well, that’s because the man in question is someone who I’ve dubbed the Creepy Old Flirt because he has a tendency to say inappropriate or sexual things to us when he approaches us (i.e. – female staff members) at the desk. The Creepy Old Flirt was actually going to be the topic of his own blog post until about a week ago, when another patron started running neck-and-neck in the “OMG you are creeping me out so much that I need to go home and take a long hot shower to make me feel clean again” department. And then some advice trickled down to us from a security higher-up who told our branch manager that she should speak to the female staff members about being careful not to dress too provocatively at work … which then led to a conversation about a whole slew of examples from our own experiences about how library patrons could be creepy no matter HOW we dressed … which led to the “overview” theme of this post. Because past is present is prologue, unfortunately, when it comes to creepy patrons at the library.
So I guess I should explain what I mean by “creepy” when it comes to our patrons or … you know … to anybody. Let me start by saying that by my definition creepiness, like sexual harassment, is in the eye of the beholder. Person A can say the exact same thing with the exact same inflection to persons B, C, and D. Person B thinks that it’s flattering and wonderful, and starts smiling and laughing. Person C thinks that it’s kind of weird that person A said that, but chooses to diplomatically ignore it or change the subject. While person D interprets it as sexual harassment and/or whips out a can of pepper spray. If it’s a stranger and/or a library patron, I usually fall into the “diplomatically ignore” category myself … unless the same person does it several times OR the person says something that immediately sends my creep-o-meter off the charts. To give a few examples:
- The middle-aged woman who asked what color lipstick I was wearing, and then after I answered her spent several uncomfortably long moments staring silently at my lips. [mildly creepy]
- The old lady who took a break from her usual topics of conversation with me — biographies of long-dead celebrities — to let me know about a medical issue she was having by adding, “I have to go to the doctor now to talk to him about some vaginal bleeding I’ve been having. Can you imagine? At MY age!” [That conversation went from zero to sixty on the creepiness scale, and then back down to zero because we've never had a conversation like that again. Thank God.]
- The guy who, when I was teaching a computer class, asked if he could record me because it would help him remember the lesson … who then several weeks later walked up to me on the floor while I was walking from the information desk and said, “You know, you really have a lovely voice. I listen to it every night while I go to sleep.” [AIGH!!!!!!!!!]
Oh, and just to be clear, even when somebody does something that makes my creep-o-meter go off the charts, I always try to keep a poker face and act diplomatic in front of that person. After all, I don’t know if the person in question is TRYING to freak me out (and so I shouldn’t give the person the satisfaction of seeing me react), and also … well, the larger issue is that these people know where I work. And I work in a public library, so they can come to my workplace and stare at me or follow me any time they want. So I don’t want to antagonize anyone, even if they DO freak me out.
Now, that’s not to say that I do nothing. If there’s a patron who is making me feel uncomfortable, is harassing me, or (God forbid) following me, I make sure to tell my colleagues and my supervisor. We all have patrons whom we try to avoid for different reasons, and working with my colleagues means that we can run defense for each other, or help each other escape a patron’s entanglements. Several of us have had instances where we’ve gone to another part of the building and dialed someone’s extension to give that person an excuse to escape a patron’s unwanted attention. Having my colleagues around to watch my back is one of the few things that’s helped to keep me sane at this job. And that’s why when something creepier than usual happens with a patron, I’m sure to point this person out to my colleagues so that we can all keep an eye out for unusual behavior.
So let’s get back to the Creepy Old Flirt and why I gave him that name in the first place. Back in the old days when the circulation and information desks were separate (also known as the Good Old Days), we librarians didn’t have much contact with this man. He WAS on our radar, but only because one of the other patrons accused him of underlining library materials in pen. We suspected that this was true, but never managed to catch him in the act. Anyway, apparently he would be overly friendly with the female clerks, but we didn’t have any flirtatious interactions at the information desk. Well, now that we’ve evolved into the “joint service desk” model, all of the conversations that used to take place at the separate desks now take place at the same desk. So we’re all under the same flirtation umbrella now. Here are some highlights from the Creepy Old Flirt’s conversations with the female staff at the service desk (oh, and to help you visualize this better, I will tell you that he is loud, unattractive, and somewhere between my father’s age and my grandfather’s age)(and my grandfather died over a decade ago):
- So, when are we gonna go on vacation together, huh? Wanna go on a cruise to Aruba?
- Oh, my favorite girlfriend! / Oh, my favorite beautiful lady!
- [After looking around our new building] Nice building! So, where do you have your orgies?
- [Upon seeing two female staff members at the desk] Ah, two beautiful ladies. Which one do I pick? Because if I pick the wrong one, you’re gonna hit me in the head with your pocketbook, right?
- [Pushes a newspaper with a picture of a "gun bra" across the desk to a female staff member] I’m from Homeland Security! I need to check you out! *laughs* [She gently pushes the newspaper back and tries to act like he didn't say anything. He pushes the newspaper towards her and says it again. She pushes the newspaper back and tries to continue with the normal transaction. He pushes it back towards her and says it AGAIN.]
So … pretty creepy, right? But now let me tell you about the guy who’s been giving him a lot of competition in the creepiness contest lately. I’m going to call this guy the Creepy Foreign Flirt. Oh, and he’s also unattractive and also older than my father, for those of you keeping score at home. [Side note: Just how insulted should I be that most of the men who say flirtatious things to me at the library fall into this category? I mean, really insulted or really REALLY insulted?]
Okay, so the Creepy Foreign Flirt is not as creepy as often as the Creepy Old Flirt. The COF says something inappropriate between 50%-75% of the time. The CFF will be fine for days or weeks at a time, and then suddenly … WHAM! You’re blindsided by a creepy comment. What makes it worse it that he tends to get you away from the desk before unleashing the comments that will make your skin crawl. Usually he’ll approach the service desk and say that he’s having trouble with the computer / printer / etc. Then when I come out from behind the desk and start walking over towards his computer, the conversation takes an unpleasant turn (well, unpleasant for ME, anyway). It will usually go something like this:
- I’m having trouble with my computer. Can you help me? [thirty seconds later] Once again, the computers have brought us closer together.
- I’m having trouble with my computer. Can you restart it? [one minute later] So … have you seen any good movies lately? Do you go to the movies often? What kind of movies do you like to see?
- So … that’s a nice shirt you’re wearing! [I say thank you, and ask how I can help him] Uh … I’m trying to print out something, but it’s not coming out and there’s a light flashing on the printer. [I come out from behind the desk, and start walking towards the printer] Plus, now I can get a better look at that shirt!
I mean, first off … EWWWWWWWW! AUGH! GROSS! GROSS! GROSS!!! I mean, Jeez, I’m just insulted, and irritated, and totally creeped out by this. Now, it’s not like I have a boatload of options here. I can tell him that he’s offensive and creepy and gross, and I can even have the whole “Not if you were the last man on earth” conversation.
And then what? Then he knows that he got to me and upset me, and maybe that’s what he wanted all along. I could say, “You know what? My colleague is going to help you with that instead.” But I wouldn’t throw any of my female colleagues under the bus like that, and I would only use a male colleague as a human shield if a male colleague was available (which is not always the case) AND if I was sure that the question wouldn’t end up rebounding back to me anyway. So in lieu of a better option, I usually just act like I didn’t hear the comment and continue on as if the person didn’t say anything inappropriate.
Oh, and FWIW, in case you were wondering, on the day of that last comment I was NOT wearing a sexy outfit. I was NOT wearing a man-trapping outfit. Yes, I have a few of those, and they’ve had varying levels of success over the years. But in fact I was just wearing some comfortable clothes, appropriate for a casual Saturday at work. I will also tell you that two minutes after that conversation, I went to my office and got a cardigan to wear over that shirt, and then proceeded to wear that cardigan for the rest of the day even though it was warm inside. Did he notice? Did he understand the implications of that action? Did any of the working synapses in his brain fire up and send a signal to his logic circuits? I have no frigging idea.
So for now, I keep up a professional forcefield around me to the best of my ability. But when I do finally leave public library service, problem patrons in general (or “migraines in human form,” as Mr. X calls them) and creepy patrons in particular are going to be at the top of my list of reasons why I’ll be glad to leave this job behind me.