Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rules of Engagement for Librarians

Paragraph Two: Dress.

Librarians shall wear business attire. At no time during library hours shall any librarian remove any article of clothing, such as tie, belt, socks, suspenders, etc. Librarians shall not wear helmets, padding, or prosthetic devices (unless prescribed by a physician licensed to practice in the District of Columbia). Male librarians shall not wear girdles or "elevator"-type shoes. Per above, librarians shall not remove shoes or throw same at each other during regular library hours. Once the library is closed for the day, librarians shall be permitted to toss articles of clothing, excepting underwear, into the information desk drawer for keepsake purposes.

Paragraph Six: Hand gestures.

"Italian," "French," "Latino," "Bulgarian," or other ethnic-style gestures intended to demean, impugn, or otherwise derogate library patrons or other librarians by casting aspersions on patrons' or librarians' manhood (or womanhood), abilities as lover, or cuckold status are prohibited. Standard "American"-style gestures meant to convey honest bewilderment, doubt, etc., shall be permitted. Librarians shall not point rotating index fingers at their own temples to imply that other librarians or patrons are mentally deranged. Librarians shall at no time insert fingers in their own throats to signify urge to vomit. Librarians shall under no circumstances insert fingers into the throats of patrons or other librarians.

Paragraph Seventeen A: Bodily fluids-Perspiration.

The library branch manager shall make every effort to maintain a comfortable temperature in the library. Librarians shall make reasonable use of underarm deodorant and other antiperspirant measures, subject to review by the branch manager, before regular library hours. In the event that perspiration is unavoidable, librarians may deploy one plain white cotton handkerchief measuring eight inches square. Handkerchief may not be used to suggest that librarian wants to surrender to the capricious whims of patrons. Capricious whims of patrons include, but are not limited to, engaging in the prohibited act of saving personal documents on the hard-drive of the public access computers or using patrons' sputum to clean the computer screen.

Paragraph Forty-Two: Language.

Librarians shall address each other in terms of mutual respect ("Mr. Branch Librarian," "Ms. Assistant Librarian," etc.) Use of endearing modifiers ("my distinguished colleague," "the honorable branch manager," "Pookie," "Diddums," etc.) is permitted. The following terms are specifically forbidden and may not be used until after regular library hours: "girlie-man," "draft dodger," "drunk," "ignoramus," "Jesus freak," "frog," "bozo," "wimp," "toad," "Lickspittle," "rat bastard," "polluting bastard," "lying bastard," "demon spawn," "archfiend," or compound nouns ending in "-hole" or "-ucker."

Paragraph Fifty-eight: Spousal references

Each librarian may make sparing references to his or her spouse. All references to consist of boilerplate praise, e.g., "I would not be the librarian I am without [spouse's first name]" or "[spouse's name] patience and generosity allowed me to obtain my Master of Library Science degree."

Paragraph Seventy-two: Hypothetical scenarios

Librarians shall not pose hypothetical scenarios involving biographies, mysteries, dictionaries or other reference items, etc., so as to taunt other librarians with respect to their knowledge of the Dewey decimal system. Such hypothetical scenarios might include, but are not limited to, questions about the Kennedy assassination: "Where would you shelve a thesaurus of historical novels concerning the mystery of the second shooter?"

Paragraph Ninety-eight: Gary Freedman.

No librarian shall mention the name "Gary Freedman." In the event that any librarian utters said name in the course of regular library hours, said librarian shall be banned from ordering pizza for the next 72 hours.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Writing Boy

The writer is a solitary traveler through life. As a boy I loved to sit alone on the curb, staring into the gutter. I would watch the iridescent colors shifting on the oil and water and I figured out that the slop of the Seventeenth Street gutter was reflecting the sunlight overhead. A small boy, just sitting there, I had emotional feelings, very powerful, of gladness and mystery, and I wanted to say something, to tell someone, about that. But there was no one to whom I could speak. I knew my sister would laugh; I feared my father would scoff; and my mother, well, maybe my mother would simply walk away and continue her housework. Or, if I felt that odd constriction in my chest and told her, she would tell me that children do not feel odd constrictions in their chest. To the present day, when I write about what I call the light within, the sense I've always had of the mystery of joy in life, I get the same tightness in my chest and with it, the old sense of trepidation. I am sometimes afraid to go on. I always knew I had the talent. I wanted to write but I was afraid of that talent. I knew I would cut myself off from my parents and my sister; and yet, how could I hide it? Lose the joy? I was always afraid that if I allowed the fire to burn, I would die. If I allowed the fire to go out, I would die. So the talent was dangerous. If I used it, I would kill myself. To confront it head-on would be too much to bear; but how could I throw it away?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Beethoven's Fifth

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are a person who taps surreptitiously when the tunes come on--of course, not so as to disturb the others; or a person who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like a person who can only see the music; or like a person who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like the person who remembers all the time that Beethoven is "echt Deutsch"; or who, like the young man seated in front of me who can think only of the young lady seated next to him and who plans to bed her later in the evening: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at any price. It is cheap, even if you hear it at Carnegie Hall, dreariest music-room in New York, though not as dreary as the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap.

The first movement had concluded and the Andante had begun--very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven has written, and, to my mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. I hear the tune through once, and then my attention wanders, and I gaze at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much do I censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, and which the October sunlight strikes. "How awful to have to paint a man like those Cupids!" I think. Here Beethoven started decorating the tune, so I hear through once more, and then smile at the conductor on the podium with his exaggerated gestures. But the conductor, listening to the music, with his back to the audience, cannot respond to my silent chuckles. An old man seated next to me, too looks as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there are lines across his forehead, his lips are parted, his glasses at right angles to his nose, and he has laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to him an old woman, so reserved, yet looking as though she wants to tap. How interesting that row of people is! What diverse influences have gone to the making. Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, says "heigho," and the Andante comes to an end. Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and "prachtvolleying" from the German contingent. The young lady seated in front of me starts talking to her new young man; she says to him: "now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and the young lady implores her young man to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, sweetheart."

"No: look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breaths the young woman, as the music starts with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others follow him. They are not aggressive creatures; it is that that makes them so terrible. They merely observe in passing that there is no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they return and make the observation for the second time. They cannot be contradicted, for, once at all events, I feel the same, and have seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins are right.

The young man seated in front of me raises his finger: it is the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things are going too far, Beethoven takes hold of the goblins and makes them do what he wants. He appears in person. He gives them a little push, and they begin to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blows with his mouth and they are scattered! Gusts of splendor, gods and demi-gods contending with vast swords, color and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all bursts before me, and I even stretch out my hands as if it is tangible. Any fate is titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered will alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they have not really been there at all. There were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men of action, men of substance, rough-hewn men, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they do. It is as if the splendor of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one hears the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walks quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendor, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Librarian of the United States

Dramatis Personae

Brian Brown, head librarian, Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library

Bill Decosta, Assistant librarian, Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library

Gary Freedman, patron, Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library

Scene: Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library

BRIAN BROWN: (shouting) Bill, what am I going to do? Did you hear that Gary Freedman's gonna put a kibosh on me? He's crazy, he's out of his mind....

BILL DECOSTA: Steady, steady, now calm yourself, come on, now get a hold of yourself.

BRIAN BROWN: What the hell? He's supposed to be on medication. I don't understand. He told me he's getting medication. What happened to his medication!?

BILL DECOSTA: OK, quiet! Quiet! Now let me think!

BRIAN BROWN: I'm gonna call the cops. That's what I'm doing, I'm calling the cops.

BILL DECOSTA: The cops? What are you calling the cops for? They're not going to do anything!

BRIAN BROWN: What do you mean they're not going to do anything, they're the cops, they gotta do something, he just put the kibosh on me, do you know what the kibosh means, its a kibosh!

BILL DECOSTA: Yiddigtkk ka kibosh.

BRIAN BROWN: I mean it's a terrible mistake, I mean he thinks I ruined his last chance in life to make a friend. He never had a chance of being my friend.

BILL DECOSTA: Call him and tell him

BRIAN BROWN: That's what I'll do, I'll just call him and tell him, I'll tell him. That's all I'll do. He's a human being, I'll talk to him. He'll understand. Right?

BILL DECOSTA: Right.... Don't mention my name

(Brian Brown telephones Gary Freedman.)

BRIAN BROWN: Oh, I got the answering machine.

BILL DECOSTA: What's his message like?



BRIAN BROWN: (into phone) Hello Gary, listen this is Brian Brown, I really think there's been a huge colossal misunderstanding, . . .


BRIAN BROWN: . . . and I feel if we can just talk about this we can straighten the whole thing out, so listen, so call me back. Bye.

BRIAN BROWN: (to Bill Decosta) This isn't going to work. Freedman's not gonna call me back. He threatened me. I'm calling the cops.

BRIAN BROWN: (on phone) Hello? Listen, I'm the head librarian at the Cleveland Park Library. Some crazed patron threatened me. He threatened to put the kibosh on me. (pause.) What do you mean, you're not going to investigate? But officer, he threatened me! I don't understand, that's not right! What if it was the President of the United States, I bet you'd investigate. So what's the difference, I'm the librarian of the United States, and I'll tell you I'm under just as much pressure. Alright, thanks anyway, ok bye.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Observer

It is a thundery spring morning of blackish blowing trees and clouds the color of cast-iron, marbled by yellow cracks. The window beside me is made so opaque by the storm that I can see my face in it -- another person. But this one after a night of little sleep looks like a zombie who has risen from a hole in the ground to push his haunting face through the world. In the lobby of my apartment building are people on their way to work, carrying newspapers and clutching bags. My impression is not that they are hard-working and virtuous people but simply that they are better than me. Yet when I consider that they too have deep secrets I realize how alike we are.

On my own like this I close my eyes and hold my breath, like a man dropping into a well. I no longer ask myself whether I am happy. It hardly seems an important question, though it seems there is all the time in the world to answer it with a clear reply. I inhabit this space, all this hissing air, going from one life to another, believing I am unchanged. I have lived like this for a long time. But today (I have no idea why it had not occurred to me sooner--perhaps it was the sight of my face in the glass) I have an intimation of another self within me, someone lurking, and I thought: Who are you?

I am living many different lives, and I know I am a slightly different person with each person I encounter -- lie to each of them, or choose a different version of the truth for each of them; remembering what to include and what to leave out. We are secret cohorts. They invented me; I invent them. But for each of us there is a more complete person beyond all that fiddle. Wasn't I a new man when I was alone?

I did not want to take the effort to write anything, and so I mumbled to myself: maybe I am living my life like this not because I want to enhance it with the intensity of many selves, but rather because I am afraid to be alone. I am fearful of meeting face to face and having to give a name to that odd solitary man; I am afraid to see him (that is, myself or my many selves) whole.

But this rainy morning I see there is even an additional person that inhabits me. He is the observer, the witness to all this, like the inspector on a train who just enters the coach to examine tickets: not a word, not a murmur, only the nibble and bite of metal punch. This observer was the one who stands aside and makes the notes and writes. His life is lived within himself. He is silent, he seldom gestures, he never argues, he dreams, he is everything, he sees everything, and so he is the one who suffers.

He goes to the library, he takes long walks, he sits in the corner seat on the subway and his reflection never stares back at him -- his eyes are always fixed on other people. He is the one who reads items in newspapers entitled President Bush Defends Iraq Policy and Stock Market Plunges in Face of Inflation Fears on the Red Line. He takes long solitary walks. He makes excuses about not taking his medication and hurries away from demanding people to eat a snack from a fast-food restaurant in the park and feeds the leavings to the pigeons. He picks up discarded letters and reads them, foraged from the trash room in his apartment building for first drafts of messages that people throw away -- all that passion in a few lines; and he stares intently at the way women's clothes fit their bodies. If a woman glances at him he goes away; if ever he catches anyone's eye he looks askance and moves on. He is a letter writer. He kills time watching television. He goes to museums. He sits alone at concerts. He loiters in libraries. In the early darkness of winter he pauses at the lighted windows of houses and looks in. He eats dinner standing up, never goes into good restaurants. If there is a fight on the street, or an argument in the next room, or a crossed line, or someone punishes a child, he is transfixed, and he listens. He is alert, he is alive -- not an actor waiting in the wings for a cue that would bring him on stage. This is his real existence, and there is no time to waste, because his life is passing and it is no more than a bubble the size of a seed pearl rising to break at the surface of the liquid in a tumbler, and then it would be over.

Being alive is being alone, I write, concealing my small notebook behind my hand. Being alone is being alive.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Ore and Aura of the Real

I swim in a sea of reality, but that makes me no more a fish than Moby Dick was. Mine is an unreal universe in which the exceptional is commonplace, in which the transient states of frustration or depression or meaninglessness are the norm. I am not a character whose life conforms more or less to the life of the ordinary man. I am an anticharacter in my experiences and in my sense of the world of reality. I require the fabulous and the bizarre. That is my metier. My purpose and philosophy of life is nonrealistic, fabulous even. I breathe the air that normal men breathe, but that makes me no more normal than any tragic figure of literature. I am both the author and the creative transformation of a fantastic tragedy. You, my friends, both real and imagined readers, are the audience of an absurdist play worthy of Beckett.

One might state it as an axiom: the anticharacter requires not only a nonrealistic setting, but a nonrealistic (or fabulous) purpose and philosophy of life in the author. I myself admirably fulfill this axiom. Not even my most fervent admirers would maintain (at least I hope they wouldn't) that my assumptions about the human condition, and far less normal human reactions to it (even if we did accept my premises), are a realistic portrayal of what is the case. We have to say something like this: I convey how things sometimes feel for the normal person when he or she is depressed or frustrated. But in my world depression and frustration are the normal course of life. In all those common extrapolated usages, there is a sense of the ludicrous for the normal man. But not for me. My life is ludicrous. My experiences, my feelings, my thoughts reflect a nightmarish dream world or something out of a book, both literally and metaphorically. Yes, for me, since early childhood, real life suddenly became like "something out of a book" -- it would seem unreal to a normal person. But for me life is unreal. Life is not like something out of a book. Life is something out of a book. My literary models are fragments of my lived experience. I have erected in actuality a model of a hypothetical universe that is much worse than the actuality. But that unreal world of the unreal is my actuality. What is interesting is that my life approximates a world more characteristic of tragedy than of the novel. No one has ever blamed Oedipus Rex or Lear for lacking realism, since we have all been trained to make the necessary metaphorical leap, to suspend what constitutes our ordinary standards of reality. And that is what you, the audience, is required to do in appraising my life, my world. You must suspend what constitutes your ordinary standards of reality.

With me it is the articulation, not the articulated, that fundamentally matters. The process and not the content is all and everything. What I wish to convey in my writings is the experience of the bizarre and the meaningless. The failure to see this is why so many who read me have failed to grasp my essence. I don't think it is altogether mere bad memory that will make you unable to recall concrete descriptions of my experiences and feelings from my writings. It is of course part of my intention that what should stay in the reader's mind is the general process, not its details. What I wish to convey is a pathological process of existence, like the state of anemia. You cannot make discoveries about anemia with normal-blood-count patients; or about anxiety neurosis with the bovinely contented. I cannot convey my message by relying on ordinary means. My means are to extract from published material the essence of identifications and associations that make up my personality. That means or method -- what some call simple plagiarism -- is my message. I restate and paraphrase what I identify with. I am like a mirror. The mirror reflects images. The mirror does not contain an original image, like a painting. But that is the purpose and the process of the mirror. My writings are a mirror that does not describe my world, but which reflects my world. My blog posts are mirror images of myself. I suppose my purpose is an existentialist one. My intent is to reflect the meaninglessness and futility of human existence. I want to show that the imitative life is the only real life. I and my writings are an extraction of the world's sorrows, griefs and passions from the ore and aura of the real. I am a miner of reality, the reality that is mine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Thousand Leering Grimaces of Life

I am an impostor with many selves. My life narrative is a place where imaginative revisions seem (at least to me) necessary. I understand that we must all construct a story of our lives: the quiet tale we repeat in our heads, after dark, while falling asleep. Without compunction, I change my story at will, inventing details, shaping and reshaping my persona to suit myself and the needs of my avocation as writer and my personal life. But I don't like it when others dwell on the details of my life history. "You seem to be spending too much time thinking about Gary Freedman," I tell people. At the same time, my writing demands a reading in tandem with the writing. The personas in my fictions, and the nature of my own character, enthrall me, and I work busily at inventing and deepening both, looking for reality through the lens of art in both instances.

Lives are lived in circles, not linearly, with past and present looping each other. This seems especially true of me, who takes my own family history as synechdochal, standing in for the family history of the artist. My sense of the present is profoundly shaped by my sense of the past, and the past brings a peculiar pressure to bear on the present in my life and writings. I am besotted with history, my own and those of people around me. I live within this history, and the history becomes me.

So how do I manage to transform my little postage stamp of a life into an imaginative space where I can roam happily over several decades, creating a vast anthology of human experience from limited materials? I was, after all, no obvious genius from the outset, being a shy boy from Philadelphia. Unlike some writers, I have no large experience of the wider world. I write consciously, applying myself with great energy to the task before me, with a deep understanding of what I am doing.

In a very real sense, I have fathered myself, having seen fatherhood diluted as it passed down from my grandfather, then to my own hapless father. I have a visceral need to regard myself as independent of the family, to lift myself over my sister and parents and everyone else around me. I do so by making fictions, all kinds of fictions. I became an artist in my own mind, creating a story to fit this need. I have become many other things as well, an outcast, a bohemian poet, a world traveler, a historian, a friend, a criminal, and so forth. These are all masks put on for the occasion, the life-phase, the person in front of me, the immediate need.

Finally, of course, I have adopted a persona that all the world can accept, that of the conquering hero of prose fiction, a man on a par with Faulkner, or Joyce or Hemingway, able to reframe the family saga and the society into which I was born through the complex operations of my writings. Over time, the mask has grown onto my face, becoming my features, the very skin itself. Only the wild, sad eyes peeking out through the mask tell the world about the soul lurking behind it. Those eyes, with their countless changes, suggest something of the many thousand selves that make up the person called Gary Freedman, only a limited number of which you will ever come to know.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Bush Doctrine

Have you ever heard of the Bush Doctrine? I only ask because Sarah Palin apparently never heard of the Bush Doctrine and she's running for the second highest office in the land.

But since, I assume, your time is not crammed with moose hunting and negotiating sensitive foreign policy issues with your neighbor, Russia, you know that the Bush Doctrine holds that the U.S. may pre-emtively strike a foreign nation that appears to pose a military threat to the United States. The Iraq war is an example of the Bush Doctrine in action (or inaction, as the case may be).

I was watching the TV show "60 Minutes" a few weeks ago that featured a piece on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. During the course of the piece a Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was asked whether the present economic crisis was foreseeable. He responded that not only was the current crisis foreseeable, it was actually foreseen two years ago.

Now I find that interesting. What action, I ask you, did President Bush take two years ago (or since) to pre-emptively address the coming economic crisis? Apparently, he took no action at all.

Ironic, don't you think? The President gets us involved in a war in Iraq based on less than credible intelligence that that country posed a military threat to the United States, but did nothing to preemtively address an economic crisis that was actually foreseen two years ago!

Obsession Brings College to Payson

By Suzanne Jacosbson

An obsessive fight, hard-waged, can wear a man out. Obsession’s cause, indistinguishable and perhaps irrelevant, dissipates after accomplishment. But accomplishment can define a life.

Doyle Coffey was fierce and still is, in his benign and jovial way. The 87-year-old man has sacrificed vacations, personal time, and his health to fulfill his quest.

Coffey’s obsession with Eastern Arizona College’s Payson campus drove him for 14 years while he, along with the college’s dean, Don Allen, fought to raise money to build a campus in Payson.

It takes more than two, of course, to build a college. Newspaper clips from 1995 show hoards of Payson students holding signs in front of a bus that carried them to Phoenix to lobby the legislature for money to build a Payson college campus.

“There were a lot of people involved in this besides Don and me,” Coffey said. “But we were the ones who kept everyone’s feet to the fire.”

The college originally ran out of a tiny strip mall location, with walls that vibrated when the neighboring washer and dryer ran.

Allen died a month before the campus officially opened. Some close to him speculate that fighting for the college hastened his death.

Coffey, who once raised money for the college door-to-door with a walker and a broken hip, says the fight put him in his wheelchair.

Speaking with a scratchy voice and wearing smudged bifocals, Coffey now sits, neatly dressed, in his electric wheelchair.

He sits with his back toward the golf course he never had time to play on, a welcome mat with a cup of coffee and the word “coffee” at the foot of an empty brown reclining chair. His wife, Margaret, sits in a matching chair.

Coffey lived through the Great Depression, in Oklahoma’s dust bowl, and was once hospitalized for a year with tuberculosis.

Born in Oklahoma in 1921, Coffey grew up a farm boy in a town called Sweetwater, near the Texas border. After earning a degree in agriculture from Oklahoma State University, Coffey found a job in Casa Grande and moved there in 1947.

Casa Grande in those days was primitive, Coffey says. The streets were dirt and the population was roughly 3,000. But Coffey was there for the cotton fields. He inspected the fields for insects, then decided which chemicals could kill them.

In 1958, Coffey contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in the hospital. The doctors told him to find a new career, like teaching school.

But you can’t keep a farm boy out of the fields, and he returned anyway. “I needed money,” he said.

On New Year’s Eve 1960, Coffey met Margaret, and the couple married one month later, in February 1961. “I thought I’d found a prince,” Margaret said. Both had been married before, but Coffey says, “we think it’s going to last.”

Trying to heed his doctor’s orders to stay off the fields, Coffey earned his teaching certification. He began his academic career in Coolidge, but eventually found a job in Casa Grande.

During summers, Coffey kept working in the fields. “He made more money in the summer checking fields than in school,” Margaret said.

Still, Coffey said, it wasn’t necessarily the money that inspired his dual employment. He liked staying busy.

After retiring to Payson in 1982 with plans of playing golf, Coffey first helped Payson School District pass a bond that failed twice before voters ultimately approved it.

The number would foreshadow a future proposition Coffey worked to pass, when Gila County voters were asked to pay a tax to fund their From page 1C

college. It too would fail twice before passing in 1990.

In 1985, Coffey was asked to sit on the college’s advisory board. Once a month for board meetings, Coffey drove two hours from Payson to Globe on a dirt road, eventually wearing out a pickup.

The county is gerrymandered, Coffey says, so that the south has more representation than the north. That power carried over to Eastern Arizona College, which provided classes in Gila County. Gila Community College did not yet exist — that battle is another tale to be told.

At every juncture, Coffey found himself asking the board, “What’s that going to do for Payson?”

Finally, one day Globe board members said, “If you damn people in Payson ever tell us what you want, we’ll help you get it.”

At that point, the idea for a Payson college campus was born.

“Come to my bedroom,” Coffey says, leading the way in his electric wheelchair. “It’s where I take all the pretty girls.” Hanging on his wall is a golden shovel — the ceremonial shovel that moved the first granules of dirt to make way for Payson’s college campus.

A picture on his wall shows then-Gov. Fife Symington signing a $1-million appropriation for the college in 1998. In 1995, the legislature approved the first $1 million.

In 1999, Coffey received the Payson Roundup’s Man of the Year award. That plaque hangs on his wall, too, along with a picture of a young Margaret, dark-haired and proud.

“OK, you’ve seen my treasure trove,” he said, aiming his wheelchair out of the bedroom, and into the kitchen where Margaret is talking on the telephone, and then back into the living room.

“I knew I had a selling job to get this done,” Coffey said. “I talked to anybody that would listen to me.”

In 1990, Coffey and other college officials convinced voters to approve a tax to fund Eastern Arizona College satellite campuses around Gila County, including Payson.

According to a news article from the time, northern county voters doubted the college’s benefits outweighed its costs. The measure failed in Payson, though Pine and Strawberry voters overwhelmingly passed it.

“I had people come up to me and just give me hell,” he said. “They just didn’t want their town to change.” Residents worried about students running amok in the streets.

After the tax passed, ensuring the college had enough money to run, Coffey moved on to raise money to build a real campus, with buildings not inside a shopping center.

“I (would) go down to the legislature, spend all day talking to the legislature. Some of them wouldn’t even see me, they wouldn’t even let me in to talk.”

Back in Payson, Coffey would call into the local radio station, telling people to call their representatives and demand a college. Eventually, the pressure worked and Coffey gained access.

“Yes, yes, you can see him. Stop these people from calling,” Coffey recalled legislative aides saying.

Coffey believed a campus would not only increase access to educational opportunities, but also increase community visibility.

“I can’t tell you how many meetings I attended,” Coffey said. “I spent all my retirement life on the college.”

A plaque sits on the college campus with his name on it, which Margaret points out when Coffey says he feels low.

But perhaps no amount of accolades could compensate for such sacrifice. At one point, Margaret recalled, Coffey became deeply depressed and lost 30 pounds. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with fibromylagia, a chronic condition defined by widespread pain and exhaustion.

“Well, let’s not get into that,” Coffey said.

“It’s part of the story,” Margaret responded.

Maybe Coffey was driven by a desire to improve education, but what makes a person devote themselves so fully to something that really has very little to do with them?

“I wish I knew,” Margaret said. It was probably because someone told him he couldn’t, she added.

“I wish I knew too,” said Coffey. “Margaret got to the point where she said ‘please don’t talk about the college.’”

“Well, it got to the point where it would consume the whole conversation,” Margaret said.

Coffey occasionally lunches with Pam Butterfield, now the dean of the campus for which Coffey so diligently worked.

“I’ve gotten to know Doyle since I’ve been here and we’ve become friends,” Butterfield said. “The town of Payson is very lucky to have had Doyle working on the college’s behalf.”

Curiously, Doyle showed no emotion while recollecting his years of struggle.

Instead, his recollections feature an objective account of circumstances, with even potentially bitter statements stoically delivered.

“A lot of people tried to take credit for the college,” Coffey says. That conversation is for a younger man.

“I just don’t have the energy at my age to follow through on it.”

Perhaps pondering an obsession’s source is pointless. Coffey can’t say why, exactly, he picked this specific battle to fight so hard. Maybe the simple answer is that once he started, there was no stopping.

Coffey said of his tenacity, “I’m just built that way, I guess.”

The man in Coffey’s living room is much older than the Coffey in pictures from eight years ago at the college’s dedication. Life’s end calls for reflection, and Coffey has much to reflect on.

He’s taken to writing his life’s stories, and just the other day he fixed the molding in his bathroom. People walk on the golf course in Coffey’s back yard that he hardly played on, but he doesn’t seem to pay attention. It’s a nice view, anyway.

“I like my life just the way it is right now, at 87-and-a-half,” Coffey says.

“After you get to 87 you count the half-years, too.”

(Suzanne Jacobson is my niece.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

This Isn't Going To Be Easy.

It happened a few months ago. I wanted to tell you about it at the time, but somehow I couldn't. I guess I needed to process it myself. I still haven't completely come to terms with it but at least now I can talk about it. I know I was not straightforward with you, and I should have been. Forgive me.

This isn't going to be easy. There's no good way to say it, so:

Bill Decosta is planning to retire three years from now.

I'm sorry. I know what hearing this does to you. He will be leaving the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library to retire, end of story.

It sounds so stark, a sentence that should never be said: Bill Decosta will be retiring. But it's all too true. Yes, I've had the same thoughts, over and over, that you're having now. Yes, the fact that he will be allowed to leave the Cleveland Park Library is senseless and baffling and self-destructive of the District of Columbia library system. I wish I had more comfort to give. Sometimes things happen that we simply can't explain.

There's no rhyme or reason -- I don't want to think about it, and yet somehow I can't stop. No librarian knows books better than Bill Decosta; the DC Library is one of the largest public library systems in the country; and so the library central administration decides . . . to let Bill Decosta resign? Am I missing something here?

The fact remains that Bill Decosta will be leaving Cleveland Park. I keep going over it. I can't help myself. It's like I'm numb. Bill. Decosta. Will resign. Cleveland Park. I mean, everyone knew Bill Decosta was thinking of leaving Cleveland Park. That rumor had been around for months, or even years. But thinking of leaving and actually leaving are two different things. As I sat in the library the other day, sitting among the other patrons, the finality of it sank in with all of us: "This is it. He's really leaving, Bill Decosta will actually be leaving Cleveland Park." People began to sob. Brian Brown, the head librarian, and a giant of a man, sat there with his shoulders just heaving. It had come to this.

An instant later, people were rushing for the exits. Nobody had been able to believe it, and now that it was happening they needed to tell the community at large. The director of branch libraries who won't let me use her name, due to grief, had her staff stencil "Bill Decosta is Leaving Cleveland Park" on the front of her limo, specifying that it be reversed -- kraP dnalevelC gnivaeL sI atsoceD lliB -- so that drivers in cars up ahead could read it and yield the road. Hazard lights flashing, she roared away into the Washington night.

As for me, I only wanted to go off somewhere by myself and curl into a ball. If I had any friends I probably would have ended up having a quiet dinner with them, talking of other matters, trying to lift one another's spirits and pretending the while that we weren't failing miserably.

Over time, we will learn that there are seven stages a person goes through when Bill Decosta leaves Cleveland Park. The first is shock and rage. The second is also shock and rage, with rage starting to predominate. The third is pretty much all rage; I forget the stages after that, because I'm still partly in shock. During the rage period, it is quite natural to put a lot of blame on Francis Buckley, the director of the faceless, soulless library system that runs Cleveland Park, who indeed has much to answer for. Obviously Francis Buckley must be a very disturbed person to allow such a thing to happen.

Strangely enough, I'm starting to feel better now. Confronting the sentence "Bill Decosta is leaving Cleveland Park," as I'm doing here, deprives it of some of its primal power to terrify. I repeat it out loud, in my normal voice, calmly: "Bill Decosta will be leaving Cleveland Park." And you see? The words are spoken, yet the earth continues to turn, the sun still shines, the flowers--

Oh, hell! Who am I kidding? I try to put on a brave face and then it goes all to smash. Why will this resignation be allowed to occur? Why will nobody stop that crazed fiend Francis Buckley from accepting the resignation? Why doesn't some courageous person at the library central administration come to his or her senses and alter the fateful course before it will be too late? And what about the rest of us? Why do we just sit idly by? Bill Decosta will be leaving, irrevocably, and the rest of us are doing, for all intents and purposes, NOTHING. Bill Decosta says he's going to retire so that he can spend his time hiking, traveling and listening to his wife play the harp, which is fine, but again I ask the painful question: Why? What greater purpose is served by a man who understands books spending his time hiking, an endeavor in which, frankly any person in reasonably good shape can succeed? I know I should accept what can't be changed, but I am not able to, and I refuse to. "Bill Decosta is leaving Cleveland Park." Make it not true.

Mr. Decosta is an associate librarian at the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library, in Washington, D.C.