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Spiraling downward at the Central Library

I was, technically, homeless when I arrived at the library. I’d drifted to Washington State after a year in Mexico, where I’d been reporting a story I’d hoped to turn into a book. Renters were scheduled to occupy my Miami apartment for the next four months, leaving me a geographic free agent. All I wanted to do was write. I considered squatting at a friend’s farmhouse, where I’ve written before. Another friend offered up her vacant summer home in Michigan.

As I was weighing my options, I came across an article about the Scandiuzzi Writers’ Room at Seattle’s Central Library, a dedicated workspace within Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s light-filled masterpiece. Writers with a book contract or those who could “demonstrate a serious commitment” to tapping the library’s resources in their work could have a cubicle, a locker, and free Wi-Fi. I emailed the program administrator, and within a couple of weeks I was crashing in the Magnolia neighborhood in a cheap duplex, a group house in which I had a mattress, a desk, and two transient roommates sharing the refrigerator.

I started catching the 33 bus to the library, usually making it there a few minutes before the doors opened. There were often at least fifty of us waiting outside. We’d huddle in a portico with our backpacks and knit caps and jackets worn over hoodies to stave off the autumn chill. One side of the portico is covered with blue steel latticework that reminded me of different things on different days. Some mornings I felt like we were standing next to the blade of a hockey skate. Other days I saw a giant sewer grate or a waffle cone. The portico is a good spot to smoke a cigarette. It is an ideal place for a rock band’s photo shoot. Once, while we waited, a very tall woman removed her shirt and posed for her boyfriend’s camera; she had covered her nipples with Xs of black electrical tape. Another day, a man in a leather Lakers jacket rolled up with a big black suitcase, windmilling his arms violently. “The machine was not working!” he kept shouting. Everyone gave him a little extra space.

At exactly 10:00 a.m., a security guard would unlock a revolving door and we’d stampede into the Living Room—“one of the most exhilarating public rooms in the nation,” according to the Library Journal. The Living Room is a gigantic glass atrium rising up eight stories. On the main floor, which is actually the third floor, long metal racks hold magazines and newspapers. There is a gift shop, and there are Italian sodas for sale at Chocolati Café. We’d ignore the stacks of librarian-recommended books as we made our way to the yellow escalator that leads to the fifth-floor Mixing Chamber.

In the Mixing Chamber, more than a hundred keyboards and monitors are lined up on long black tables. The Mayor would get off the escalator here, taking half our pack with him. The Mayor was gregarious, with a long blond goatee, a huge rucksack, and an indentation on the crown of his head the size and shape of an iPhone. He unofficially presided over the rows of PCs. Most regulars prefer to sit in orange plastic chairs at the ends of each table: more room to park a bedroll, and also an easier exit should the FBI show up to arrest a patron, as has happened.

I would walk on, to a second, taller escalator that ascends through the Books Spiral, one of Koolhaas’s most acclaimed innovations, a continuous ribbon of non-fiction media winding from floors six to nine. As I rose through the Western canon, I could watch the cargo ships anchored in Elliott Bay through a wall of diamond-shaped panes of glass. On seven, I’d board another escalator, up to the ninth floor, where both the Writers’ Room and the Reading Room are located, as well as the rarely used Map Room. The Writers’ Room sits in a corner framed by steel beams painted U.N. baby blue. The tenth-floor Observation Deck hovers overhead, and above that hidden administrative offices buffered by soft white pillows designed to muffle the sound waves that bounce around the atrium. The entire ninth floor is flooded with soft light from the three stories of windows that rise upward, angling into the lopsided pyramid that gives the building its recognizable shape.

A gray divider separates the Writers’ Room from the Map Room. On the divider hang photos of contemporary authors: Amy Tan, Gloria Steinem, Tim O’Brien. Below the photos, atop a bank of dark wooden lockers, sit a dictionary, a thesaurus, a book of quotations, and a dated copy of Writer’s Market. There’s also a stack of Great Books, for quick access to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

As a resident writer, I’d been given a special code to unlock the door to the Writers’ Room. (It was 007.) About twenty people had access, but not many other writers made use of it. My only regular co-occupant was an aspiring novelist named Victor. He was originally from Romania. He spoke with a thick accent and wore a patch over his right eye. Victor retired from a post as CEO of a computer company a few months before he joined me in the library. Retirement, he announced, freed him to pursue his dream of writing a saga about “the real Dracula, only fictional.”

“Dracula is my homeboy,” he told me the day he first turned up. Victor initially intended to write only one Dracula book, but so many ideas started swirling around his brain that he now foresees writing a series. At least six volumes in total, each running to around 100,000 words. He had asked to reserve a desk and a locker for the next five years. He was relieved when the library approved his request. In his first weeks as a novelist, spent out in the library’s Reading Room, Victor didn’t get much work done. “A guy sitting next to me would pass entire afternoons unrolling tobacco from cigarette butts,” he said. “He would just pile the filters into one big pyramid and the tobacco into a smaller pyramid.”

Thrilling from top to bottom,” raved The New Yorker when the library opened in 2004. GQ included it on a list of the “most important and beautiful structures in America.” Condé Nast Traveler called the library one of the “Next 7 Wonders of the World,” and the New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp claimed that “[i]n more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting building it has been my honor to review.”

The Central Library replaced a structure once considered cutting-edge—the first library west of the Mississippi to incorporate escalators—that had devolved into what one Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist called “a de-facto hygiene and day center for people who had few other options.” The problem wasn’t unique to Seattle, of course. In an American Library Association survey, librarians reported that the mentally ill were sucking up a disproportionate amount of their time and resources and were disturbing other patrons. Almost all librarians said they’d had to call the police at some point. In fact, one public-library director declared that people with untreated mental illnesses may pose a greater risk to the future of public libraries than does the Internet.

The new Central Library was to be Seattle’s solution. Deborah Jacobs, the city librarian at the time, pledged that in Koolhaas’s building, musty odors would be defeated by a superior ventilation system. More security officers would patrol the stacks, and those officers would do a better job enforcing rules against sleeping, “sex acts,” and “offensive body odor.”

“We are going to stop bad behavior before it starts,” she told the Post-Intelligencer, repeating what she’d been saying at countless community meetings. “We are not going to turn into a homeless shelter.” Jacobs was persuasive, and she got the library built. As a reward, she was handed the directorship of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative. The Central Library she left behind has joined the Space Needle and Pike Place Market atop the list of Seattle’s must-see tourist attractions.

When the central library was still in the design stage, the washrooms received a lot of attention. Librarians complained that the old bathrooms had been used for bathing and washing clothes. That sort of thing wasn’t going to continue at the new library, Jacobs promised. She sweated details down to cool color schemes for the sinks and toilets, to discourage loitering. “I’m crazy for bathrooms,” she told the Post-Intelligencer.

The bathrooms are located on the first, fourth, and seventh floors, and all of them are as busy as bus terminals. The toilets on the fourth floor are the least used. There are only two stalls, and it is common for occupants to remain in them for an hour or longer, until guards making their rounds order them to wrap things up. In a fourth-floor stall I once found a pyramid of empty Busch tallboys.

The seventh-floor bathroom is the best: three urinals, three toilets, five sinks, and a guy wearing a face mask who mops up every few hours. Excessive grooming is prohibited in the library’s rules of conduct, but every day I saw teeth brushing, clothes washing, hair washing, and even hair cutting. In a seventh-floor sink one Saturday I found a nest of curly black pubic hair. People hung out in the stalls for long stretches even though the doors were deliberately designed to be too short to provide privacy. Everyone could see everything. I learned not to make eye contact.

It was easy to keep my on-site grooming to a minimum, because I’d basically stopped grooming altogether. Seattle offered me an opportunity to experiment with my habits and routines. I’d heard that coffee can hinder the writing process, so I gave up caffeine—which was a bit like giving up surfing right before a trip to Huntington Beach. I also decided to wear a uniform, cycling through three pairs of blue Dickies work pants and seven identical white T-shirts from DKNY, which I paired with black boots and a black Nike hoodie. When I woke up in the morning I put on my uniform, grabbed from the refrigerator two cold-cut sandwiches, and left for the library, never needing to think about anything but my book. I also embarked on a beard, which I like to grow when I’m in writing mode. I didn’t see a reason to cut my hair, either.

Late every afternoon, I’d walk or ride the elevator down to the Living Room on the third floor to eat my lunch. (Jacobs and Koolhaas opted, curiously, to save money by not installing down escalators on the top six floors.) I learned to arrive just after 5 p.m., which was when Chocolati Café closed for the day, leaving me free to loiter at my table longer than the otherwise mandated twenty minutes. I’d pull out my two sandwiches and a can of caffeine-free diet soda. The Mayor, who often ate with me, usually had peanut butter, saltines and a bottle of iced tea purchased from Bartell Drugs across the street.

The library’s security squad was a common topic of conversation during these meals. One day, a woman flamboyantly turned out in a multicolored turban and what at first appeared to be white dreadlocks but was actually the head of a mop, complained to us that a guard had stolen her backpack. “He was deliberately all over me. I had mail in there, and he stole my mail, so he has committed a felony,” she said. “I called the cops. No, actually, I screamed and screamed that he’d stolen my stuff. And my friend called the cops for me.”

“They’re not allowed to touch you,” the Mayor said. He turned to include me in the discussion. “They’re not allowed to touch you at all, so don’t let them bluff you!”

I nodded, swallowed. The woman wearing the mop and turban stood up and walked toward the escalators that led to the Mixing Room. She carried all the things she was so concerned about in two white plastic bags from Bartell Drugs. She was followed by a Japanese woman in a Lands’ End jacket whom I often saw on the fifth floor, where she’d watch old movies on a portable DVD player, muttering to herself about Nazis.

While I backpacked in a couple of sandwiches every day, Victor catered a feast. He brought actual plates to the library, china on which he fanned dried apricots and stacked plump grapes. After lunch, I’d return to the Writers’ Room to find him with his laptop humming and his food arrayed on his desk. I’d work for one last session, usually my most productive of the day. As it closed in on seven o’clock, I was no longer distracted by the tour guides on the Observation Deck or by the fistfights echoing from somewhere down on the fifth floor. The tourists and their cameras had relocated to restaurants along Lake Union, and Victor had gone home to eat dinner with his wife. (He was a morning person anyway, up and already thinking about Count Dracula by 4 a.m.)

And then, just as I found a writing groove, I’d hear the intercom: “Can I have your attention please? The library will be closing in thirty minutes.” The announcement would be repeated in Spanish. There would be another reminder in fifteen minutes, at a quarter to eight. It could take ten minutes just to power down my laptop and pack it away in my locker. I needed to wrap up my cords and collect my notes. By the time I put everything away, I’d be left with only about five minutes to catch the elevator, which, in the closing rush, was pushing it. A lot of us tried to leave at the very last second.

From the outside, the elevators in the Central Library are as soothing as an aquarium. The shaft’s clear glass walls expose the system’s mechanics. I liked to watch the cars rise and fall, listening to the calm whir of cables and pulleys. One rainy night a few months into my residency, four men joined me in watching a stack of counterweights fly past, shooting skyward and indicating that a car was disgorging passengers nine stories below. Finally, a bell chimed twice and two doors opened. We checked for vomit, a necessary step. Smelling none, we entered the neon-yellow cab. When the doors closed, we crammed in together with our backpacks and puffy coats. I liked to think of us as astronauts descending after a launch had been scrubbed.

We stopped at every floor, like always. On eight, more astronauts squeezed in.

“I gotta go to the bathroom,” said Buzz Aldrin when we reached seven. He tried to push to the front with his three suitcases.

“You do not have time,” counseled Neil Armstrong.

“But I’ve got to go!”

“They done already locked up the bathrooms,” Armstrong pointed out. “You gonna go check it out anyway? Okay, brother. Better hurry. They gonna lock you up inside of here. You gonna be here all by yourself, you and the ghosts.”

“At least he’ll have something to read!” said John Glenn. Right at closing time, we reached the first floor and filed through the library’s double doors out onto Fourth Avenue. Glenn carried his rucksack toward Pike Street. Straight ahead, a team of paramedics lifted into an ambulance a man with a long white beard, a regular patron. The man was fine, as we all knew. As the paramedics knew, too. He just wanted a place to stay. A warm place, his own bed, out of the rain.

Everywhere Jacobs goes,” stated a 2004 Seattle Times article, “she is asked if we are not spending $165.5 million on what will become a glorified, smelly greenhouse for the homeless.” Now that the construction is finished, it’s unclear the city has money left to maintain its architectural masterpiece. The entire library system shut down for a week soon after I arrived. The Central Library has curtailed its hours, and administrators are purchasing fewer books than they used to. Every week I would hear tour guides on the Observation Deck brag that window washers have to use mountain-climbing equipment to clean the building’s jagged glass walls. Those walls weren’t washed once in the months I spent at the library. One day, when I idly asked a librarian how she was doing, she broke down in tears. A veteran researcher of thirty-five years, she’d just been downgraded to a part-time paraprofessional, take it or leave it.

The librarians who remained at Seattle Central looked shell-shocked. Numbed. Maybe they were worrying about the precariousness of their positions. Or maybe they were unnerved by the sight of a man in the Reading Room lifting his shirt to slather lotion on his nipples. Their primary coping mechanism seemed to involve tuning it all out: the constant noise, the anarchist graffiti scrawled in the elevators. I earned my master’s degree in library science, not social work! Just stare at your computer screen. Two more hours, three more hours. Eventually the shift will end.

One afternoon, some small kids were running around the Map Room like they were at recess. Children were always screaming in the library, especially up on the Observation Deck, but these kids were truly tearing it up. I got drawn in when I heard a crash. Worried about a possible injury, I ran over to see what was up. No blood was evident. Two girls opened and closed flat-file drawers of maps. A boy no older than three climbed onto a table, which impressed the girls, who clambered to join him atop the summit. At base camp on the carpeted floor, facedown, lay a middle-aged woman. I could hear her snoring.

“Oh, I hadn’t even noticed,” said the first librarian I tracked down. She was sitting at her desk no more than fifteen yards from the Map Room, which is open air—no ceiling, no walls on three sides. “I just get so wrapped up in my work.”

Every so often the library would open a few hours late, usually because of staff meetings of some kind. On one of those days, I’d known not to show up before one o’clock, but Victor had missed the posted signs. He’d arrived at the library at the regular opening time, suddenly finding himself downtown with three hours to kill. He ended up in a chain bookstore across from Westlake Park, where he found a book he liked, took a seat, started to read, and promptly fell asleep. He was poked awake and told to leave the store.

“They thought I was homeless!” Victor said to me. “Can you believe that?”

I could believe that. Like me, Victor had started wearing the same clothes to the library every day. Black sweatpants in his case, but also a black hoodie like mine. He had embarked on a beard, too. My beard had grown so long by then that hair crept up my nose whenever I drew in a breath. Five times in two weeks, librarians had dispatched security to kick us out of the Writers’ Room, assuming we’d stolen the door code from someone or climbed over the wall from the Map Room next door.

Koolhaas had wanted to celebrate “the book,” to put it on display. So he placed the Writers’ Room directly below the Observation Deck. Not cool for the writer trying to concentrate—though to be fair, there’s not really any place in the library where a person can work undisturbed. When the touring percussion group Stomp gave a lunchtime performance in the Living Room, I could hear every clang and clink in my cubicle six stories above. When a couple broke up in the Mixing Chamber, it was audible throughout the building. They started on five but soon ascended to the sixth floor, home to the library’s magazine collection. Then it wound closer. Seven. Eight. Getting louder. On ten, the Observation Deck, where the fight climaxed, she leaned her chest over the balcony railing, directly over my head. I could see she was wearing blue Adidas sweatpants with white stripes. She was carting around two rolling suitcases and a red backpack with a bottle of water sticking out of it.

“You’re not taking my shit! That’s it, man—it’s done!”

He was dressed in a heavy winter coat over baggy pants. She was a little bit overweight. She seemed to have laid down an ultimatum: If he left now it would be over for good. She didn’t want him to leave. She didn’t want it to be over.

“I need to get out,” he said, trying to act calm. He pressed the button for the elevator.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” she replied, choking on a sob. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”

“I’m just trying to get on the fucking elevator, man,” he said. This caused her to break down. She tugged the hood of her sweatshirt over her hair and down to her eyes, then cradled her face in her hands. She remained right above me, maybe ten feet away.

Security showed up. Two of them, same as when they dealt with me.

“What’s going on?” asked a guard.

“I’m just waiting for a goddamn elevator,” the woman said. She said it, not the man who was dumping her. The elevator arrived a moment later. The woman stepped into the car defiantly, dragging her suitcases behind her. We’re going down together, she seemed to be saying. We’re going down as a couple.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said to one of the guards. “Can you please direct me to the stairs?”

This killed her. She released a howl that I could still hear as the elevator doors closed. We all could still hear her, ever more distant, as the car descended to the street. I tried to return to my work. I didn’t really feel like writing anymore. Instead, I stared at my laptop for a while, then looked over at Victor, who didn’t seem to have noticed the commotion. He had taken to working with two little foam bullets stuffed in his ears, complementing them with a bright-orange headset he’d picked up at a gun range. I spent a few minutes contemplating his beard and his hoodie and that headset. I fingered my own beard and twisted a lock of my lengthening brown hair. I needed to get out, I realized. I’d stayed in the library a little too long.

I left Seattle a couple of weeks sooner than planned. One day near the end, I caught the 33 bus an hour earlier than usual, paying the twenty-five-cent surcharge levied during rush hour. The bus went down Elliott Avenue, hugging the bay until the route curved up toward the Pacific Science Center. Near the Space Needle we turned onto Third Avenue and entered the now-defunct downtown Ride Free Area. At the next stop, as always, half the library piled on.

“Are you going to the food pantry?” a woman asked me. I shook my head. A guy about my age took the seat next to mine. He smelled of cigarettes. His hair and beard were long, like mine. When the bus reached a stop just beyond the post office, I got off and hiked up Madison Street to Capitol Hill. A Vietnamese barber cleaned up my beard for five dollars. cash onli stated her sign. For twelve more dollars she also trimmed my hair short. I made it back to the library a couple minutes before post time. There was the usual scrum.

“I’ve always had the philosophy, If you’re going to go to jail, do something serious, make it worth it,” said a man with a large hole in the seat of his jeans. “Don’t do something small-time or jail just ain’t worth it.” On the hour, a guard unlocked the revolving door and we streamed inside.

“Another day,” sighed the Mayor as we hurried up the escalator to the Mixing Chamber. He was speaking in general, to everybody. I don’t think he even recognized me with my haircut. Our paths diverged at the yellow escalator that carried me up to floor seven. While I ascended, I looked down at the rows of computers and noticed the old man from the ambulance.

Before I arrived in Seattle, a friend had told me I needed to surround myself with successful people. Their achievements would be infectious, he had promised. I had told him not to worry, that I planned to work in a downtown office in a dynamic city, riding the bus every morning and living the life of a professional. That the building was to be the Central Library didn’t seem particularly relevant at first.

I’ve spent enough time in public libraries—in Miami, Milwaukee, Boulder, Boise—to know that the staff have transformed into what Chip Ward, a former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, has called the “daytime guardians of the down and out.” In Boulder on rainy days it was hard to find a free cubicle. One wet afternoon, police roamed the library searching for a suspect who happened to be sitting right next to me. (He politely gave himself up.) I just didn’t expect the same culture in Seattle, inside such a celebrated building—not after Deborah Jacobs so loudly declared that her library would not devolve into what it clearly has become, a homeless shelter with free Wi-Fi.

Maybe its transformation was inevitable. City officials have talked since the library’s opening about constructing facilities for the homeless nearby, but what shelter could possibly rival a Next Wonder of the World? The building couldn’t help but be a magnet for transients. Jacobs’s optimistic bromides that it wouldn’t be were just salesmanship. At best, the idea that she could change the culture of an urban library by erecting an expensive architectural masterpiece was naïve. A smarter approach might have been to accept some unconventional use of its resources, as the San Francisco library did recently, when it added hoods to the computer monitors so that no one would be disturbed by the occasional patron looking at porn in public.

On one of my last visits to the Writers’ Room, Victor’s laptop was open and his fruit arranged on his china. He’d pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his orange headset. When he saw me walk in, he leaped up to show off a yellow jacket he’d bought at a discount. The zipper was broken, but with a twist tie and a safety pin he’d engineered a solution. The previous night, he told me, he’d worn the jacket out to dinner with a friend. When the sommelier asked what they wanted to drink, Victor demanded the very cheapest wine she had.

“Look,” he’d explained to her, “I’m homeless.”

I slipped out the door and made my way to the elevators. Cables whirred. The doors opened. I checked the yellow car for vomit. Finding none, I stepped in, nodding hello to Alan Shepard. Together we descended to the launchpad.

is a freelance writer and the author, most recently, of This Love Is Not for Cowards.

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November 2012

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