Sadly the decorum and the code of my job means I must disguise this person. I am telling a real story, but no matter how deep the sins of this patron, he is still entitled to a rough anonymity here. He is a type, but he is specific. Nothing I write here in describing him will be particularly true, but I do hope very much to get at the basic idea.
He needs help.
There is a variety of patron that needs help. No, not the regular every day help that so many patrons need and that some of us actually like giving. This is chronic help. Unending help. These are people that the staff has to learn. These are people we huddle together in the back forming special rules for. I have seen actual library policy rewritten around single individuals like this, general rules that ultimately only ever ended up applying to one person. While our maximum number of items checked out allowed is far more reasonable now, we once had to invent a rule limiting it to 500. Five hundred! This was almost 15 years ago and I can still remember the patron's name. These people can sear themselves into one's consciousness. How fiercely she had to juggle to abide by our newly strict 500 item limit! There were calls and renewals and elaborate trades where certain books had to be checked in so that certain books could then go out. It inevitably ended badly because a few books out a few days late at 30 cents per book a day is manageable, but a small returning mistake with 300 biographies is going to hurt.
Our current guy isn't asking for anything unreasonable, but that's the problem. A few reasonable requests: "Can you remove my card from my wallet?", "Can you fix this thing attached to my cane?", "Will you load these in here?" are bearable enough, the man has a series of physical disabilities, but when they pile forever upon each other they will bury you.
So we work out, with the managers, all the things to say no to, things that would be individually churlish, but that are absolutely necessary. We are not to help him or touch his property. We can't do things for him. He says "I've dropped my wallet. Could you just pick it up for me?" And we look at him, his legs wrapped in unbending braces, helpless before his wallet, and we say "I'm so sorry. I'm not allowed to touch your wallet." and sort of hope that there are no other patrons standing around looking at us like we're dirt as they pick the wallet up for him. Of course, a lot of the time we don't say it so kindly even as that. We say tersely "I can't touch your wallet. No." But that terseness isn't usually until his 14th needy request.
I haven't been out on the front desk with him around much, but tonight I was. He wanted me to copy a coupon for him. He dropped something. He needed an adjustment on his painful looking shoes. He wished me to push something over for him and to carry something of his from one place to another. He just needed a hand. Oh, he dropped something again. Could I hand him one of those envelopes?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Sorry.
It wasn't a bad night, seven "no's" and I was out. It is well established that the "yes's" go on forever. He ended up corralling various random patrons for his needs. I was unable to protect them and they were embroiled in acts of momentary kindness that swallowed them like quicksand. I would see them occasionally gulping for air and wondering if they'd ever escape. When he'd had enough of that he mysteriously stopped dropping things. Seven "no's" was the right thing, along with the four "no's" from my partner at the front desk. We did well.
But I hated it. I hated saying no at the service desk. It always seems like a terrible defeat to me, whether of the library, or my resolve to be helpful, or of how I want the world to be. The one thing that I think I am truly afraid of ever acquiring at the front desk is a real taste for saying no. Yes, saying "no" is one of the most valuable and important and powerful tools we have, but we are a library, and no matter how completely right and perfect and just it is, in a library "no" is always stained with a little blood.