I saw a man today in the public library.
He was sitting at one of the tables near the window with the geometric stained glass design. His table was cluttered, but with an element of intentionality to it. When I first glanced at him, he was rifling through the pages of a textbook, and the air that puffed after he turned a large section sent an adjacent stack of papers in all different directions. He responded to the paper exodus by jarringly and hyperactively grabbing for the ones that attempted to get away, accidentally sending the stationary ones over the edge of the table with his elbow.
At first I thought he might be on some sort of concentration altering drug for which he did not actually have a prescription. But then I realized he was brilliant, probably. He had the look of a savant: he wore shitty Wal-Mart snow boots with acid wash dungarees half tucked into them, but typed furiously into a black IBM notebook that only really serious people own. He seemed to be engaged in something strenuous intellectually, as he quickly alternated holding his head in his hands, scribbling with a BIC pen on one of the wrinkled papers, and moving those damned rove papers again with the air current of his textbook. It made me think of a scene in Amadeus, just before Mozart went completely bonkers.
Then I figured maybe he was getting his degree, like either a Masters or an Associates or something like that. His daughter and his lovely wife came by at one point, to wish him well and to give him dozens and dozens of adorable and laborious kisses and hugs. It was as if they were trying to say “go get ‘em, honey! You can do it, just one more certification exam and you’ll have your diploma!”
I suddenly found him very noble, like he was the sort of man that works with his hands—a chef, an electrician, a landscaper, a carpenter—and now wanted to reopen his mind to math and science in an institutional context.
But he was frustrated. He couldn’t see the end result for him like I could. He couldn’t see the lovely picture his wife would soon frame and place on their mantle of her, the daughter, and him in the middle with his cap and gown smiling from ear to ear as if to say, Finally! He couldn’t see the new found charisma and confidence he would foster with this degree in his back pocket. He couldn’t see the imminent pay raise a Masters degree in business or mathematics or economics would bring him.
He couldn’t see, and why not? It seemed so obvious to me. Through the graphing calculator, the marked down textbook, and the yellowing pages his stuffy business instructor doled out to him the first day, I could see the amazing success coming to him.
Don’t look up the answers in the back of the book! You know them already! You should at least, because I see them clearer than a midsummer’s day.
So stop fidgeting, man! Stop getting up abruptly and exasperatingly to “walk around” for “a study break.” Just think of your rosy-cheeked daughter and your wife with the shiny haircut! Just think of that new house on the East Side you can buy when its all over, complete with a large plot of land to put a swing set you will assemble with your craftsman hands! Just think of the proud look in your stoic and skeptical father’s eyes when you tell him you’ve been promoted to Chief Distributer! Just think. Just think!
Or, maybe he’s just pleasure reading?
Maybe I’m just an asshole who doesn’t know how to start my pointless essay on the theories of ethnographic research, whose ear buds are starting to hurt and are probably giving her brain cancer.
Hannah Rank is a freelance radio producer and writer based in Minnesota. She enjoys long walks (seriously, she considers walking a hobby), not working full time, and eating lots and lots of food, at a constant rate (mostly cheese).