My first job was as a library page for the public library in our town. It was within walking distance of my school, so after classes I would walk over for work. Sometimes, if I wasn’t scheduled to start right away, I would go to the fast food place across the street for something to eat. A lot of kids went there after school, and one day a table of boys behind me thought it’d be funny to smash ketchup packets, the result being that the back of my shirt ended up covered in ketchup. The boys just laughed.
It was lucky, I suppose, that the shirt was a chambray/denim affair I was wearing over a white tank top. I was able to take it off and go over to work, then rinse the shirt in the break room sink.
At that time, we had a man named Mike working at the library with us; it was part of his community service for some misdemeanor, the facts of which I never learned. I’ve never known a man named Mike who wasn’t simply a huge fellow (not at all true of people I know who go by “Michael,” by the way), and Mike stood well over six feet. It would have taken at least another half of me to be as wide as his chest and shoulders, and it was all muscle; Mike was a black belt and religious about his fitness. And I was the only person he could be bothered to talk to, ostensibly because the two dried-up hags who ran the library were unpleasant to him (as they were to me and everyone who worked under them), and the other page—a girl named Vicky who wore black bras under yellow sweaters—was actually too forward for his tastes. Vicky was a gossip to boot, and she was constantly coming up with stories about what Mike had supposedly done to get community service, none of which were likely to be true. I mean, I don’t think you get community service for having killed someone, even involuntarily.
The day I came in with my soiled shirt, Mike was in the break room. He immediately wanted to know what had happened, and I told him, and he got up and left. Not to go into the library, but out the door that led to the parking (that was the door employees were told to use, like servants, always the back entrance). I thought his shift must be over, and the fact Mike never said anything to me didn’t surprise me at all because he was strange that way. But later I found out he’d gone over to the restaurant and, though no one bothered to give me the details (not even Vicky, who herself quit the job soon after), did something to the boys who’d ruined my clothes. He’d done this, even knowing it would compound the trouble he was in, and even though he had less than a month left on his community service.
It occurs to me, looking back at a lifetime of similar incidents, that despite my independent streak I seem to inspire protectiveness in others. I’ve come to the conclusion this is because I’m intelligent in a way that causes me to spend a lot of time in my own head, and so in turn I have proven somewhat incapable of taking care of myself.
When I lived alone, I had friends who visited regularly to make sure I’d remembered to buy food. (I often hadn’t.) A particularly kind couple from my workplace would take me home with them once or twice a week to feed me. A big Italian guy once fought off some insistent sailors for me in a bar in Florence. A kind man in the British Museum walked me not only to the exit but back to my hotel when I got lost on my first trip to London. The same happened when I got lost in Paris during a rainstorm.
I don’t mean to be helpless. And I’m very good at taking care of other people. I just can’t seem to do for myself.
I do wonder what happened to Mike. He never came back to the library. I don’t know if he received additional probation or jail time or what. But I do know the boys at my school never bothered me after that. So thank you, Mike, for making my life a little easier at the expense of making yours more difficult.