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2007-12-28

Waiting for Elijah

In some Jewish traditions, the return of the prophet Elijah will herald the coming of the messiah. To prepare for his arrival, they set aside a chair and a glass of wine at the Passover feast. Some rabbis teach that Elijah might return in the form of a stranger or wanderer, perhaps even someone who, at first glance, you might not want in your home. I was reminded of this story when I read this post from Eric Berlin's blog.

I am not macho. I avoid confrontation with the best of them. Finding someone passed out on my front porch would certainly startle me. But calling the cops on him struck me, both then and now, as an overreaction. A more measured response, it seems to me, would have been at least to discover if the guy was hurt and assess whether someone other than a police officer would be better suited to the situation.

Berlin's post and my reaction stayed with me several days, so much that I asked friends and workmates how they would have responded. To my dismay, every last one agreed with Berlin. They cited largely safety concerns as the prime reason for involving the cops, often saying some variation of, "You never know what that guy could be capable of."

True. But there are people we encounter every day—at work, in the store, at home—who are just as capable of doing harm as any of us. Being disheveled and passed out on another's property is no greater indication of a person's badness than wearing a suit and tie signifies a person's goodness. Of course the guy on the porch's behavior was beyond the norm, but was it really enough to tie up a 911 line and occupy five officers and three police cars? Are certifications and surgical gloves required to deal with unexpected situations, as if some rage virus will exploit human emotion?

Besides the Elijah story, Berlin's post reminded me that librarians—especially public librarians—are on the front lines every day. Sometimes our patrons are disagreeable in temperament or appearance or odor. Sometimes they're even a little batty. The job demands that we constantly assess and react to our environment and the people in it. However, we must always do so with deep thought and even deeper humanity.

4 comments:

steve s. said...

This post from the PL raises some very interesting points. I will take the Passover analogy a step further. In the service for the Passover meal (seder), there is a point where all those who are hungry and needy are invited to come in and join the family in their celebration. In the tradition in which I was raised, it was expected that any stranger who came to your door would be invited inside to share. I can’t imagine that many families in the NY metropolitan area still observe this tradition.

But consider the case of Kreimer v Morristown. Richard Kreimer, a homeless man, was a frequent patron of the Joint Free Public Library of Morristown, NJ. Mr. Kreimer maintained that he used the library to read newspapers, magazines and books but occasionally sat in silent contemplation. However, the library staff felt that his odor was so offensive that it not only bothered other patrons but that it actually interfered with the staff’s ability to do their job. The library drafted rules of behavior. On at least five occasions he was expelled from the library for violating the library’s rules governing patron conduct, mostly having to do with hygiene and with “belligerent behavior”. Mr. Kreimer sued the Town and the Library on the basis of access and the claim that the rules were so vague and arbitrary as to be unconstitutional.

For the moment, let’s forget about the fact that Mr. Kreimer made a great deal of money in an out of court settlement with the Town and the Library. (Mr. Kreimer won his early case, losing only before the Federal Appeals Court. Ultimately the Town gave him money to go away and stop pressing his lawsuit.) Does this case really represent an access problem (Elijah on your doorstep) or is it a balancing act between the rights of Mr. Kreimer and the rights of the other library patrons? If I, as another patron, decide that Mr. Kreimer’s odor is so offensive to me and that his belligerence so scares me that I can no longer use the library, has he not restricted my own access and my own rights to use that facility?

The PL points out that librarians “are on the front lines every day.” He goes on to assert that “the job demands that we constantly assess and react to our environment and the people in it. However, we must always do so with deep thought and even deeper humanity.” I agree with this assessment. But is it fair to place librarians in the role of police? Is it fair to make the librarian the judge of a patron’s hygiene? Is it fair to place the librarian in the role of deciding whether a patron is in “quiet contemplation” or just loitering? I don’t know the answers to these questions. It just seems to me that we are asking a great deal of librarians when we want them to make these determinations, enforce these decisions and then defend them in Federal Court.

Eric Berlin said...

Being disheveled and passed out on another's property is no greater indication of a person's badness than wearing a suit and tie signifies a person's goodness.

I'd say being passed out on another person's property is inherent not of "badness" but of a willingness to engage in flagrantly inappropriate behavior. And it would be inappropriate no matter how the guy was dressed. Do you seriously think that if the intruder was dressed in a suit and tie, I would have said to my wife, "Oh, that signifies he's a good person -- let's invite him in for breakfast." The dude had opened the door to my house and was camped out on my enclosed porch. I would have called the police if he was Bill Blass his own self.

And I love how you say I "tied up" a 911 line. Because, first of all, we all know how very busy 911 is at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. And, second of all, I cannot imagine a more appropriate use of 911, even during the peak of the busy period, than when a strange man has intruded into your home. Had you been there at the time to raise the possibility that this was Elijah the Prophet, I would have bet a fairly sizable amount of money that it was NOT.

Further, I hardly commanded the police to send three police cars and five policemen. That's how they chose to respond. I would have guessed that a single black-and-white would be summoned, and two police. They thought otherwise, and far be it from me to second guess them.

How we react to, as you say, disagreeable temperaments and batty fellow citizens depends largely on the circumstances in which we meet them. I can deal quite civilly, even warmly, with such people in a public arena. When they show up at my house, uninvited, and pass out not to far from my childrens' bedrooms, that is a whole other story.

Anonymous said...

A more measured response, it seems to me, would have been at least to discover if the guy was hurt and assess whether someone other than a police officer would be better suited to the situation.

It seems to me that the police, who have training both in assessing the need for and delivering medical assistance, and in dealing with individuals who are impaired, are far better equipped to handle a situation like this than most of us.

porpentine11 said...

Berlin seems to me to stretch the meaning of the phrase "flagrantly inappropriate behavior." His own blog points out that the guy on his porch lived in a house with the same number on a similarly named street in a different part of town. He apparently showed up on Berlin's door because his ride brought him to the wrong street. Flagrantly inappropriate behavior would be randomly walking up to houses and sleeping on their porches. (Even that, by the way, isn't always flagrantly inappropriate; many homeless are obliged to randomly pick somewhere to sleep, though I'm sure they do their best not to plop down in suburban porches.) An honest mistake seems to have been made.

Berlin also exaggerates in other respects. If "the dude" had opened the door to Berlin's house, he would have been in the living room. "The dude"--notice the diction that Berlin uses to illustrate to us that he's really a cool guy despite his calling the cops--opened the door to the enclosed porch, probably a screen door and perhaps one very much like the screen door on his own enclosed porch.

Berlin here says that the dude's state of being disheveled had nothing to do with his calling the police. Perhaps that's the case. I don't know, but neither does Berlin. I've lived in suburbia and seen nicely dressed men crashed in front of my former neighbors' houses around July 4th or other days when too much drinking had gone on, and I've seen my former neighbors go outside, wake the formerly drunken men on their lawn, and tell them to go home. This didn’t happen often, but more than once, usually when a party was held nearby. I've also heard what those neighbors said about disheveled characters. A suit goes a long way to defend the wearer from having to deal with the cops.