Betty, the Library Witch

    Books are shown from a children's library. (Jana Shea for WHYY)

    Books are shown from a children's library. (Jana Shea for WHYY)

    Betty wanders through the library muttering and hugging herself. In her seventies, with scraggly grey hair and a hard, troubled gaze, she resembles a witch, but in baggy sweats and a faded T-shirt instead of a black dress and pointy hat.

    Because Betty once taught nursery school and is drawn to small children, she’ll hover by the elevator to the junior room. When the kids get off, she’ll be standing there, towering over them and glowering. When they shriek with fear, she’s as alarmed as they are.

    Betty also alarms our adult patrons, but since she doesn’t technically interfere with their use of the library, there’s nothing library staff can do. Being weird and inappropriate, while troubling, doesn’t violate any specific library rule of behavior. Betty chants nonsense in a singsong voice and emits bleats and clicking sounds, but quietly. The fact that she’ll sometimes slip a hand down her pants and scratch her butt is a little icky, but not illegal. She’s in a grey area both cognitively and in terms of library policy. She doesn’t really belong here but we can’t kick her out.

    But we’d like to.

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    We’re a small library and having Betty here for hours each day has made a difference. Before Betty, we were a pleasant, bustling library. Now we’re a bustling, creepy library — the library with the wandering witch.

    Bob, the man who brings Betty in, isn’t her husband. We don’t know what he is. All we know is that he sits down at a computer and ignores her, leaving her to wander the library unsupervised. But she isn’t really unsupervised. He knows that library staff will stop her from invading the staff room, playing with the water fountain, or wandering out the front door.

    “It takes a village to look after your demented girlfriend while you go online and pretend that she doesn’t exist,” one co-worker muttered angrily after an afternoon devoted to keeping Betty out of harm’s way.

    “Cut the guy some slack,” said another. “Would you want to be in his shoes?”

    She may not be his girlfriend. Maybe she was, once. Bob isn’t loving or affectionate with her. Nor is he angry or testy. Mostly, he’s exasperated.

    “Sit down, Betty!” he’ll instruct sternly when we bring her back to him. “Stay with me.”

    A moment later, he returns to web surfing and she’s off again.

    I have a friend who lives on their block. “That no-good bastard is living in her house, on her social security check!” she claims. Their once tidy home is run down and packed with junk. When Betty gets out and wanders the neighborhood, naked and shouting, the cops just return her to Bob.

    “Can’t you do something?” my friend has asked them.

    They told her that removing Betty from her home and institutionalizing her wouldn’t necessarily make her life any better. “That’s what will happen if you call social services,” they said. “Are you sure you want to make that call?”

    She wasn’t. Neither am I.

    Perhaps there is some tenderness there. Maybe the two of them bed together at night, and she’s glad to have him. He seems to be all she has left. The loving constellation of family and friends we count on to take care of us has let her down.

    We librarians, all of us strong, independent, middle-aged women, tell ourselves this won’t happen to us.

    The public library is the heart of any community. Young parents bring in their newborns — tiny, loved and full of promise. Couples in their eighties come in, holding hands. When you work at a public library you see every kind of person, at every stage of life. You see where you’ve been and where you’re going. You see both the future you want and the future you dread.

    What will become of Betty? She’ll probably continue to haunt our library until she manages to spark a conflict with one of our more volatile patrons, perhaps the skinny bald paranoid who hisses at you if she thinks you’re looking at her funny. Betty will glance at Old Baldy the wrong way and the next thing you know we’ll have a good old cat fight on our hands. Then we’ll call in the cops and have them both banned from the library.

    It will be a relief to have our pleasant library back. But we’ll feel as if we’ve let Betty down. Of course, she doesn’t belong here. Maybe the real problem is that she doesn’t belong anywhere.

    Roz Warren is the author of “Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor.” This first appeared on Women’s Voices For Change.

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