Laura Story Johnson, 12/16/2013
Current Occupation: Depends on the time of day, but the coffee always seems to be cold.
Former Occupation: Depended on the time of day, the difference being those were the days before she drank coffee.
Contact Information:Laura Story Johnson writes humorous nonfiction essays that are meant to be read in ten minutes or less because that is the maximum amount of time her children allow her to do anything uninterrupted. Her work has most recently appeared in Great Lakes Review and The Bygone Bureau. In ten minute increments she is currently working on a collection of autobiographical essays titled WOMEN ARE MORE DANGEROUS THAN SHOTGUNS. www.laurastoryjohnson.com
I worked at the Reserve Desk of my college library all four years as an undergrad, the appeal being that it was open until midnight. The late-night shift was generally quiet and so it yielded some time for me to study while at work. It also yielded lonely old men who liked to philosophize and pent-up students who liked to streak. On more than one occasion I was informed that my university education was pointless. On more than one occasion I watched someone’s bare bottom jiggle past the grey-bearded diatribe.
At the time I counted a bare bottom to be a blessing. We had it better at the Reserve Desk than at the Main Desk. After all, we were tucked in the back far from the fray of public masturbation and summa cum laude anxiety attacks. Our policy at the Reserve Desk was simple: two hours. That was it, end of story. A single minute overdue and we owned your soul. At least that’s what my Reserve Desk colleague liked to tell wide-eyed patrons as he looked for dirt under his long nails.
“Your soul,” he’d murmur through black lips. I thought he wore makeup, but he was also the first vegan I’d ever met and considering he subsisted on Twizzlers, it might have been a dietary condition. He was well over six feet tall, pale, and wore only black. He might have been the first Goth I’d ever met, but at the time I thought he was just sad. I decided that in addition to shelving and cheerfully listening to our resident elderly antiestablishmentarian, I would add to my list the task of making my ghoulish colleague smile.
In college I resembled Pollyanna, a trait that helped to land me the jobs I needed to supplement my income from the Reserve Desk. I would turn on the saccharin responding to advertisements that I found on the library’s billboard. Sunny and energetic: that was me. It was my voice that got me a job doing some “organizing” with an elderly-sounding gentleman on the Upper West Side. A dozen people had called him, or so he told me, but he decided to hire me.
When I arrived he let me into his prewar apartment by pushing the door back hard against a stack of magazines. My glad game enthusiasm quickly waned. His was an incomprehensible hoarder’s nest. We squeezed through a path in the junk and I felt light-headed. He talked nonsense as he gestured about nonsense, mostly about his wife being an opera singer and looking for a broom. He found the broom and we entered a room that was stacked floor to ceiling with empty, unused postal boxes.
I fixated on the fire hazards while he started handing me piles of papers. I dutifully stacked them and assumed I was making a recycling pile, but when he told me to put the stack into another box it became clear that he wasn’t throwing anything away. After an hour he asked me to sweep and criticized my method, accusing me of just pushing dust around. He took the broom from me after I swept up a miscellaneous scrap of paper. Removing it from the trash bag and putting it carefully on a stack he asked if I wanted some water.
He led me across the hall and unlocked another apartment. A mafia-sized freezer sat in the middle of the living room. Every inch of every counter in the kitchen had a glass on it. Piles of sheet music encircled the freezer like a shrine. His wife poured water into one of the glasses and I pretended to drink it. He told her we were “making progress” and then we returned to the apartment across the hall. “One last thing,” he said, as he pulled a handcart from a room of wheeled carts. “Let’s move this fridge to the basement.”
I loaded up a mini fridge and followed him to the elevator. With a series of keys he opened up a storage room that stretched the width of the building. The madness consisted of every possible item I’d ever seen collected in colossal quantities. There was actually a boat down there. I asked him gently if it was the storage room for the entire apartment building and he said, “Nope, this is all mine.”
Afterward I couldn’t look at buildings without wondering about their hidden secrets. I became obsessed with a book about people living in tunnels under the subways. I would stare at the entrance to his building pondering the origin of the word façade. Eventually the fray of the city crept to the Reserve Desk and the dust of life in New York filled the corners of my own being. Maybe I was incapable of sweeping. I stopped picking up odd jobs and took on a pre-dawn shift washing towels at the gym. My Pollyanna mask started to crumble. Tired and grouchy I snapped at a Reserve Desk patron one night when he tried to negotiate to keep a book longer than two hours. I sent him away and put my head down. My gothic colleague tapped me on the shoulder. “Twizzler?” he offered. And that was when he finally smiled.