I am sitting in the basement of the John Crerar library, an hour and a half before my shift starts. The basement is my favorite part of this building, claustrophobically cramped and overflowing with books just waiting to turn into dust. There is a single computer available, next to a shelf crammed with ancient microfilms that were once someone’s precious science babies. I think of all the people who sat miserably at this desk and probably snuck crumbs of a bagel into their mouths even though the “NO EATING” sign looms all sinister-like overhead. Once upon a time, my 70 year old uncle sat here in this very spot, tapping his long fingers on a type-writer, while musing over the waste of his young life, at 25. We spoke on the phone yesterday, he asked, “Is U-Chicago still the place where fun goes to die?” No? I don’t know? But maybe Crerar is. Everyone here looks so downtrodden, all the time.
Here in the basement, the stacks are on a movable track, to make more room for less loved books and when I come down here, I cannot help but shimmy through the narrow quarters and run my fingers down the length of each abandoned spine and imagine who else has hidden here for refuge.
Crerar is a science and research library. If it weren’t for the fact that I work here, I doubt I would have ever stepped foot into this place. I work as a shelver, mindlessly stacking books on a wheeled cart and replacing them in Library of Congress order, Lucinda Williams blasting her wretched lullaby into my ears while I try to focus on decimal points, to dissolve thoughts of my own melancholy. To be present.
I try to find the humor in this place. My two supervisors are a pair of the most fantastically awkward people that I may ever have the pleasure of interacting with. They sit together in flanked desks at circulation: one obsessively dribbles eye drops into his pupils every five minutes and smiles secretively to himself while intermittently whispering under his breath. To interrupt him from his private thoughts is to be scowled at cantankerously. He is impossible to read and I often wonder about his personal life. I cannot tell whether he is in his twenties or his forties. He is a misanthropic anomaly of a human being. My other supervisor looks like a young Santa Claus, who may have spent his best years as a raver. He is a red-faced jolly-looking guy, long hair unkempt to his shoulders, his big belly often protruding out of a soft-woven bright orange sweater, baggy jeans falling over his turquoise canvas sneakers. To see him is want to crawl into his lap, but interacting with him is a fascinating conundrum. He is painfully, compulsively shy. You say hello to the guy and it’s like he wants to creep back into the turtle shell this life never afforded him. It isn’t right that he should look so colorfully welcoming. I just want to see what these two guys do when they’re not in the library. In my fantasies, they go home to the same apartment and share lo mein out of take-out cartons while watching “Cheers” re-runs or something. I want them, at least, to have each other.
Crerar has saved me from spending all of my time in the monotony of academic over-thinking. I can fall apart a little bit here, and unapologetically so. While climbing step-ladders and stretching the length of an aisle to replace a wrongly-stacked hardcover about hermaphroditic apes, I can be painfully cognizant of my own slowly creeping mortality. While thumbing through pictures of cancer cells in lab rats, I can muse over my own worthlessness. The type-A mentality of this school to be so demandingly on top of my shit all the time is fizzled out a little bit here. No one knows I am a student. I am just a grumpy lady wearing headphones wheeling a big old cart.
Social Workers were never meant to come to Crerar. If they were, the colors would be more neutral, none of this off-red carpeting. There would be motivational posters and free coffee somewhere; not crinkled pictures of dissected frogs yellowing haphazardly outside the elevators.
More and more I am on repeat, rewinding through the syphilitic question of what the fuck I am doing with my life, and why I am racking up a lifetime of debt (again) to go into a field I’m not even entirely sure I am equipped for. The endless droning of verbosely hopeless reading material on the uselessness of this profession doesn’t quite seem to help this spiraling out of pessimism. Last night, I ate a pot brownie in hopes that some sort of substance-boost would make me feel less depressed, but instead I sat on the toilet for 20 minutes staring at the wisps of mold starting to appear on the corners of my shower curtain and tried to make crying faces. Nothing happened, so I went to bed.
I am not…unhappy…per se. I am just, so self-aware. There is a map drawn of the next eight years of my life and none of it looks particularly inviting. I graduate from UChicago with a degree to practice social work, I find a job, I work for two years or so to accrue hours for a license and then I find a place that starts at a semi-decent salary willing to pay off my loans at some point in time and then work as a therapist. I will be miming thoughtful phrases to some iteration of “vulnerable population” on how to self-improve before going home and stewing in my own suspicion of each of my utterances. I try to talk to my dad about this through a text message–my fears and doubts of becoming a ‘professional’ and he says, “You’re going to be a great writer.” “Dad, I’m in Social Work school,” I say. Ten minutes later: “Oh.”
Next week I have an interview to be a suicide prevention counselor. I bought a tweed blazer with corduroy elbow patches to wear with my cheap Target dress and sensible Mary Janes. I obsess over whether to wear my hair in a top-knot or straight down, and fear whether my asymmetrical gutter-punk mullet will make a bad impression. I flutter over a brief moment of wanting to jump out the window and then remember I am trying to get a job in suicide prevention. What the fucking fuck?
Part of me thinks that I am an idiot for going back to school. Or for not waiting somewhere else in academia to be discovered clutching the underpinnings of a memoir about my dysfunctional family life. Stuck in Western Massachusetts and sifting through the pile of bullshit that are all of my problems. I loved being self-deprecating and mildly celebrated in my small city where people stopped me on the street and said, “Hey, you’re that eggplant girl!” Where sarcastic hipsters got high in second-story apartments and listened to scratched records from the Salvation Army drinking PBR while resenting themselves so egregiously. There are fewer people to make fun of here, in segregated Chicago where the problems are real and the questions are bigger. I want the ground to thaw. I want to walk along the Lake and feel confused by the freshwater current.
Or maybe I should just stay in Crerar. I can hide in the stacks and sit on my cart, pushing myself through the side panels when my feet start hurting. I can look at endless figures of statistical data without ever understanding their meanings and feel mildly comforted by own ignorant perception of the world in black and white. I can be humbled by the vastness of science and feel immensely small in comparison to the formulaic undercurrents of the world, mapped out in data and numbers too big to equate to anything tangible. I love how meaningless I am, really. Soon enough all my struggle will just be energy back into the earth. NO ONE CARES ABOUT WHETHER I LIVE OR DIE IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS! ISN’T THAT WONDERFUL?! Oh yeah, I’m gonna make a damn fine therapist.