My first real job years ago (other than mowing lawns and delivering a weekly newspaper) was working at the public library, first shelving books and later working in circulation. I started working there when I was 16 years old. I think I worked there maybe five years. It wasn’t a great job. It didn’t pay much, but I reasoned that it was better than working in fast food or at a restaurant. In retrospect, I would have probably made more money working at a restaurant.
Shelving books was mindnumbingly boring. And I had to endure lectures from reference librarians (the elite of in the library hierarchy) about how books needed to breath so don’t just shove them in an already full shelf. I would nod and smile. Then I’d keep shoving the books in place once the librarian was out of sight.
When I graduated from high school and entered college, I started working as a circulation clerk. It was less boring, but it made me interact with the public. And although you’d imagine that people in a library would be a bit higher on the IQ food chain then elsewhere you would be wrong. I often dealt with people floating in the shallow end of the gene pool. And there were transients who came to the library to sleep and get out of the elements. And there were the perverts who roamed the stacks trying to look up women’s dresses.
You didn’t have to have any special qualifications to work in circulation. It didn’t require a library science degree. You just had to know how to type. Much of the time I either checked books out or checked books in. The best time was working in the circulation office and you could at least carry on a conversation with other circulation clerks.
Most people who worked in circulation did so because they just needed a job. Many were like Starbuck’s barista’s are today: wannabe artists, writers and actors. One of those was a Chicago transplant with a full ZZ-Top beard named Kelly McFadden. Kelly was a playwright trapped in a circulation clerks body. He was a new father and needed to support his family. And he was super cool.
Kelly and I quickly became friends even though he was in his 30s and I was probably 19 or 20 at the time. He shared his philosophy on life and having to deal with looney people with me. He’d come off the front desk after checking out long lines of people and say, “Tim, I’m just gathering data...just gathering data.”
I loved that phrase. Because Kelly was taking in all of the madness we experienced and storing it in his brain to be used in his writing. At the time, I fancied myself as a great novelist in the making, so I adopted Kelly’s attitude that no matter how mind boggling our experience was, it was stuff we could use in our writing.
The other thing Kelly did for me was introduce me to the music of Tom Waits. And to this day, I think Waits is an inspirational genius.
When I moved away from Boise to finish college in Seattle, I lost contact with Kelly. But I think about what he taught me to this day. And although I never ended up writing a novel, I’ve gathered and continue to gather a great deal of data. Much of it has been used in my blog.
So thanks Kelly. I hope you wrote a highly successful play and are profiting from all the data you gathered.