Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The Thin Line (Fka Clerking 12)
The Thin Line
Even the most obtuse clerks, the craziest clerks, the most perfect clerks, the mean clerks, the carefree clerks, the obedient clerks, all of us really, know about the thin line. The thin line marks an infinity of different things for an endless variation of clerks, but the thin line is also the same for everyone, the same no matter what it demarcates, and that is the almost instantaneous transition from “I’m just a decent clerk trying to get through a day” to that sudden, smoky whiff of the smolder of trouble.
Now, I’m not focusing on trouble here, not per se. Real trouble is gossip worthy, rare, and explosive. It’s two clerks yelling at each other. It’s disciplinary actions. It’s hushed, tremulous meetings behind closed doors. It can be everything from almost all your co-workers momentarily hating you to getting fired. But that’s all further down a road than you may ever travel, well into the wilderness that lies beyond the thin line. You may see trouble once in a year, or once in a decade, but the thin line you will see every day.
Have you avoided the check in desk and its ceaseless piles of books for too long? Were you too mean to that patron? Have you called in sick and showed up perky the next day one too many times? Have you wandered off on a minor errand for an unreasonable length of time? Did you win a stalling match with a co-worker to get them to help the person at the registration desk twice in a row now? Have you been in this conversation too long? How loud is it? When, for perfectly sensible reasons, you handed off a chore you hate to someone who’s better at handling it than you did you catch a flash of menace in their eye? Anger? Annoyance? Wild hatred? Check yourself at the thin line.
I’m checking in books. We’re a little short staffed and I’m certainly doing my job if not a bit more. Business quiets down for a bit and a book on Groucho Marx falls into my hands. I quickly ascertain that his mother loved Chico more. It’s just a random paragraph of browsing, maybe thirty seconds tops. I am engrossed, but I smell smoke. I feel the heat of eyes. I look up. There are seven people there, waiting, just quietly standing. An eighth person is being helped by my flustered looking colleague. I know in a sudden shock of recognition that I have just in a flash hurtled past the thin line. I scurry and help the waiting people. Through diligence and efficiency perhaps I manage to chase back across to the safe side of the thin line. But however far I think I have run to safety the thin line is never far away. It waits.
The thin line leaves its subtle marks too. How irritated was my co-worker? Have I done this too often? I make a half joke, a half apology, but did it work? I think she’s okay. I don’t swear off reading, I mean, c’mon, but maybe I look up more for a while. I’m a little more paranoid. The thin line lurks and I keep an eye out.
This does not mean that we clerks are necessarily accurate about the thin line. We may go blundering wildly past a thin line, completely oblivious, while worrying we have transgressed with some trifle no one has ever faulted us for. The obtuse and irritating patron we took for a patsy may be on the phone to the library director now about us, while the touchy weirdo we worried we mortally offended might be so utterly besotted with us we’d be alarmed if we knew. I have seen clerks camped out at remote computer terminals with endless, almost entirely imaginary work, who have long since earned the deep enmity of all their co-workers forever, stepping quickly and with alarm back across the thin line to help me, to appease some wrath in me that is already so deep it is like second nature to me. It is a thin line that they think they see and one they fear they are in danger of momentarily slipping across, but one they have actually lived on the wrong side of for years. Nevertheless, I do sort of appreciate they’re strange, misguided effort. Sometimes we clerks, doing what fundamentally amounts to the exact same job in partnership, do it so differently. These dances with good behavior, these deranged commonalities like thin lines knit us together. I can’t quite endorse the thin line's hints of disaster, their paranoia and fear. It is not pleasant how it can sometimes haunt our steps, or leave us gaping at mirages. But I will grudgingly admit that I can use a little something to get me to look up and see that a line has formed and my co-worker could use a little help. I’m just a bit too inclined to wander off and read about Harpo until it’s time to close.