I walked into the George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul. The satchel I was wearing had my work clothes in it. A man directed his voice at me: “What, you actually come to the library to read books? Who do you think you are, Arthur or something?” I ignored the comment and tried to figure out what made this person ask me such direct questions. I was offended, and apparently he was, too. It is, after all, a library. Or is it? The library wasn’t just a library, as visibly homeless people with their belongings frequently used it as a place to warm up. Then my sociology degree kicked in. What is the definition of the situation? Perhaps it is foolish to think that a library should be used for reading? Ah, yes, the sociological imagination. A big concept for getting in the other person’s shoes. I would like to side with the homeless man against the status quo and brush up against the politics this situation reveals.
Homelessness in St. Paul isn’t new, but what is new is this individual’s boldness. The homeless man’s questions are brilliant. He empowered himself against the bookish nerd with the privilege to leisurely read. This moment by which the homeless man defines the space for him, against reading books, cannot be separated by a Donald Trump presidency, an anti-intellectual event. But the neoliberals are no better, as this situation reveals. As a symbol of neoliberal capitalism, I am what is wrong in the world to him. His observations are correct. I rarely find a person in the literature, sociology, philosophy, arts, history, geography, math, or home decor sections. I do find people sleeping in chairs. I do find people reading the newspapers to get updates on the world. I do see people on Facebook playing pop balloons, and sometimes I see people studying for their careers. The statement “well, it is a library, and it is meant for reading books” is without insight.
The homeless man is right to call me out and poke fun at my nerdy glasses. The George Latimer Library is a wasted space benefiting from being called a library and having books. Its primary role serves the interests of society, which are to get people employed. Not that employment is a bad thing. My point is that there is something wrong about the use of space if many of the books are not actually being used for this role. This is a library; there are books; people don’t read most of the books, but we keep them here just in case they need them to waste their time being like Arthur.
I think since the city of St. Paul chooses to build a soccer stadium instead of a place for the homeless to catch their breath, it would be perfectly reasonable and practical for me to go to the library and start dumping the books into bins while saying, “Bring in the beds! Let them sleep! Build a kitchen, let them eat!” Isn’t that really what this man’s questions are about?
This contrast between intent and use is common. It occurs again on the late-night light rail where the homeless rest their weary souls. One night I rode after a 10-hour shift washing dishes. The train conductor drove erratically and stopped to boot and harass the sleepers of St. Paul/Minneapolis. And strangers, too, get on and harass the homeless, poking them and starting arguments.
Meanwhile, stadium after stadium goes up and the liberals worry about the poor birds hitting the glass windows. Meanwhile, I hold a pamphlet from the trash with a list of wines in the restaurant owner’s name. The most expensive is the Penfolds Grange Australia 2005 for $650.
What will it be, leaders of the Twin Cities? It’s obvious to me where the interests of Minnesota are. Words are not action, but I’m just a dishwasher. The most I can do is give leftover potatoes to a stranger in need, but even that is illegal in some states.
Jacob Woods graduated from Hamline University and lives in St. Paul