By ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN
Published June 8, 2007
CLEARWATER - Jackie Ramseur sits outside the library on a park bench, her bags at her feet, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes. She's tiny, wiry, with skin browned by the sun. She had two teeth pulled this week, and the pro bono dentist wants to pull two more. She won't say exactly where she sleeps at night - only that she has a "hidey hole," and it's safe.
In her bag, she has library books. There's Valley of Silence, a Nora Roberts romance novel about Celtic vampires. She has Stargirl, a young adult novel about teenagers confronting high school cliques. And Second Wave: Acorna's Children, a sci-fi novel she picked up off a library display because it had a cat on the cover, and she loves animals.
"When I had a house," Ramseur says, "I had lots of books."
Ramseur spends her time near the main library in Clearwater, but it could be anywhere. From downtown to suburban branches, it's the rare library that has no homeless patrons.
Though most libraries require an address to get a borrowing card, many homeless people have cards. They have them from before they were homeless, or they use a friend's card. Nobody tracks statistics on homeless library users - how could you? - but in a world where Main Street USA is giving way to Strip Mall Inc., libraries are a rare public space offering a free service.
Ramseur started reading young. She says she taught herself to read at age 3 when she was growing up in Illinois as a ward of the state. Now 54, she used to work in restaurants, mostly as a cook. She has three grown children and two ex-husbands. She doesn't keep in touch with any of them.
The last time she had a home - "inside," she calls it - she lived in Madeira Beach. One night, she says, some friends were at her apartment partying and spilled ice on the floor. She slipped and broke her shoulder and arm. She couldn't work, she says, and she ended up homeless. In October, it will be four years.
"I'm old and I'm set in my ways, and I don't like anyone telling me what to do," she says. She takes a swig from a soda bottle filled with something that's not soda.
Ramseur begins most days on a park bench near the library. She gets her books first thing in the morning, then stays outside. Homeless men congregate on the benches as the day goes on.
Sometimes it's quiet; other times people talk and quarrel. That's when Ramseur takes out her book and starts reading.
"This is my sign that says, 'Leave me alone, I'm already upset and don't want to hear nothing more.'"
* * *
On a recent weekday afternoon, a young girl charges out of the library and toward Ramseur's bench. She looks like an older teenager, though possibly she's in her 20s. Ramseur calls her Cat but says that might not be her real name.
"I just got trespassed!" Cat tells Ramseur. Her eyes are big and she shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. She says she was going to the bathroom, so her friend logged her on to the library computer. A security guard told her it was against the rules to have someone else log you on, so he kicked her out. That's getting "trespassed"; sometimes it means a legal order, and sometimes it means just getting kicked out.
"I've been using libraries all my life," Cat fumes. "I've been coming to the library since I came down here. And I ain't once got trespassed."
"You should be respectful," Ramseur tells her.
The girl paces around.
"Give it a break," Ramseur tells her. "It'll probably be better later."
"I don't know, Mama." Cat calls Ramseur "Mama," and so do some of her other younger homeless friends. "I cursed him out."
"Oh, so you're going to make it harder for me," Ramseur says as the girl turns away. Ramseur sighs, rolls another cigarette, takes a pull from the soda bottle.
* * *
Most libraries have patron behavior policies. At some, the policies have been in place for years. At others, they are recent additions or recently updated. The Manatee County library system overhauled its patron policy this year in response to homeless people who were storing bags in the library and bathing in the sinks. The John F. Germany Main Library in Tampa has an airport-style box at the entrance; whatever a patron brings into the library has to fit in the box.
A typical patron behavior policy forbids things like talking in a loud voice to yourself or others; sleeping; having a body odor that constitutes a nuisance; or following people around the library with an intent to annoy. Courts have said libraries can use patron behavior policies as long as the policies are not overly broad and the patrons can return to the library once they conform to the policy.
To enforce the policies, security guards or off-duty officers are fixtures in the modern library. They deal with a range of issues, from problem homeless patrons to unruly teens to potential child predators.
When Ramseur goes into the library, she says hello to workers at the front desk. She'll check with them for any book she has requested to be held for her. Last week, it was Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Publisher's Weekly called it an "outstanding fantasy debut . . . free of the usual genre cliches."
She wanders the adult fiction stacks on the first floor, looking at the new titles. Many tempt her, but she tries not to check out more than one or two books at once.
Having too many books out makes her nervous because a lost or damaged book costs money. When it rains, she worries about the books getting wet. She gets a small check each month - $80, she says - and any kind of book fine hurts. Hardcovers are a bigger hit than paperbacks. And she has learned the hard way not to lend books.
"I had a rabbit book for four months. A friend of mine got a rabbit, and she didn't have any idea what to feed it," Ramseur says, "So I got a rabbit book, The Urban Rabbit. This is a book about city rabbits. She took it with her and never brought it back. I had to pay nine bucks for that book. I'll never do that again."
* * *
Ramseur's favorite book is Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. It's about a human raised by Martians who returns to Earth and creates a religion based on free love. The Martian-raised human is ultimately destroyed by Earthlings who find his message too disturbing, but there is redemption, too.
The point of the book, Ramseur says, is open mind, open heart.
"The first time I read it, I didn't have that," she said. "And I've done read it about six times since. I'll probably read it 200 more times. I get something new out of it every time."
Ramseur says she has to have an open mind to live on the streets. "Considering everything that goes on out here, if I don't, then someone better shoot me," she says, then laughs.
Ramseur has diabetes that she takes medicine for. She smokes. She won't talk about her drinking. She has other health problems that she doesn't like to think about.
"I'm not looking forward to going inside. If I go inside, I'll have to have heart surgery, and I ain't ready for that. They won't do it right now, while I'm on the street," she says.
In the meantime, she keeps reading. Maybe one day, she jokes, she'll have read every book in the library. She likes the third floor reference section with its books on Florida birds. Whenever she sees a bird that she has never seen before, she looks it up in the library. She points out birds around the park and names each species unprompted.
The books are still in her bag, waiting for her to pull them out. They will take her away from the park bench.
"I go everywhere in the world when I'm reading. Just like I do when I'm dreaming. Sometimes being out here is too much, and I've got to go somewhere else."
Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at (727) 893-8573 or firstname.lastname@example.org.