I am the greatest clerk in the world. I know this is an outlandish and profoundly egotistical thing to say so I’ll say it again in hopes you can adjust to it for a bit. I am the greatest clerk in the world. Now I’ll amplify it: do you know how many clerks there are? Neither do I. If I had the dedication, focus and ambition required to work that out for you I presume I’d have a better job than clerk. Still, it is a lot, a lot of clerks in the world. If I were the best clerk in the room, among ten or fifteen, that would be one thing, or the best essayist among thousands, the best baseball player or Doctor in their various thousands or hundreds of thousands, I think we can agree that would be impressive, but the best clerk? Surely that is among the millions of us, the tens of millions! That is a competition on an epic scale. That is an achievement of a colossal weight. I would be better here, I am better here than all of tens of millions of clerks!
Of course, we are talking about clerks. None of us are trying that hard. Still, tens of millions of clerks in the world and here I am the greatest of them all. Indeed it’s such a preposterous magnificence that I know you can’t actually believe me. I don’t blame you. I almost think I’m joking or misguided as well. Perhaps if I tell us both the catch you’ll begin to open up a little to my contention. I am the greatest clerk in the world for about fifteen minutes every few weeks. Better?
It’s usually after my quadruple espresso. I got enough sleep the night before. I’m almost always handling the check out line. It has to be modestly busy, not intense, just enough to apply a soft, full pressure so that I, at every moment, have something to reach for, to keep in the air. Just before it starts I’m already moving fairly well and have a nice sense of where everything is in the library and at my desk. Someone approaches, perhaps a semi-regular I’ve never really talked to. A joke lines up in me, partly funny, relevant, bittersweet, it curves. Light drifts into me and it begins. I am absorbed in pulling 9 DVDs as fast as I can, but loose too, aware of every molecule everywhere, detached. A patron compliments my speed while I solve a filing error through deductive reasoning and sleight of hand. It is choreographed to take no time within the pulling of DVDs. I respond to the speed compliment with a preposterous bit of buffoonery for benefit of the whole line. It includes them and lets them know I know they’re there. I read them by their laughter. Next in line prefers expediency to charm, second will enjoy ferocious and preposterous reviews of items they are checking out, gentle teasing. Third wants to be on the inside, a telling anecdote. But as I measure then I am moving, I am recording everything in their hands, all to give me the slightest edge when the time comes, the knowledge of how to lean.
And so it goes. Names strangely float up in my head to match occasionally seen faces in my line and somehow their requests are at hand when their turn arrives. They make self-deprecating jokes about using the library too much, but they feel famous. A crying three year old quiets and falls mesmerized as I speak confidentially and seriously to it in a mostly fake bastard Italian. There is no calculation in it. I do it for sheer joy of life. I am simultaneously resolving two ridiculous problems on the parent’s card, explaining the arcana of it and chiding the perfidy of our mutual enemies. I take theatrical and personal time with each patron but according to their deeper needs, and yet, my line moves with an uncanny speed. No one is restless because everything is laid bare and there isn’t an ounce of fat. A co-worker approaches with an odd, tough little problem and, sideways, with the warmest partnership and my high running luck, I turn the problem belly up and slit it with a single stroke, pull its heart out. No stride is broken. Every pointless rule, every institutional obstinacy or accumulated automata of a system sweeps into air before me like dust before a gale. Patron problems are brought down, small things, and shown the door of the universe. I am all over indulgence and mercy and speed and presence. But no con stands. Justice is still served and those who seek to manipulate in their convenience are gently and surely shown a higher calling. They respond and become better people. I find not just the lost items of a giant filing system, but I find souls. I love everyone. No light is too faint for me to see. My mind is sharp. I have seven hands and the world is beautiful.
And then, there is a break in the line. I see the clock and it is only 1:55. The magic sun crashes and it’s over. I’m tired and wish I was home. I lay my head on the bare, fake marble counter and sigh elaborately. A particularly smelly patron, with sixteen crappy DVDs approaches and says “Quiet day? I have some work for you.” I think, unbidden, but with real vehemence, “You pig, get a life!” I’m still tolerably nice to the poor bastard. For one thing, I know it’s not all their fault; partly it’s just a kind of backlash, the universe correcting itself, partly it’s that my job, in its way, sucks, and partly it’s, well, in the great clerk rankings in my head, I’d hate to drop out of the top ten million altogether. I have my pride.