Like most workers, I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m going to get swung at while at my job. I’m a librarian, not a professional boxer or an MMA fighter. But on a Monday afternoon in August, in this glorious year 2020, that’s just what happened. I asked a library visitor to pull up the mask he had around his neck, and he replied, “Get the fuck away from me.” When I told him he needed to comply or he would be asked to leave the building, he said, “I’ll do what I want.” When I then told him he needed to leave the building, he got up and took a big swing at me. I ducked, and he missed. As he was walking toward the door, me alongside him, he took another swing. Again, I ducked. Despite not connecting, he realized it was time to go.
Although the doors at the Philadelphia libraries remain closed, the public library where I work just north of the city has been open since early July. We haven’t been as busy as in a typical summer, but people are coming in: to use computers to apply for jobs that you have to apply for online (all of them!), apply for benefits, try to secure housing, or try to find love online; to print, fax and copy; to browse the shelves; to get out of the heat or the rain; to chat with acquaintances; to get a load off. We require all visitors and staff to wear a mask or face shield at all times in the building. Early on, there was a somewhat coordinated group of anti-maskers who were calling or coming in to the library and claiming a medical exemption, seemingly just to see what we would say and do. We explained all of the ways we could help them get what they wanted if they remained unmasked outside of the building. In the ensuing weeks, most people have been pretty good about keeping their masks on most of the time. Some people try to hide and take their masks off. Some put up a minor fuss, but, surprisingly, nobody fights us on the science of it. In “normal” times, the rather nasty verbal response I got from the person who tried to deck me is not uncommon at our library. We are, after all, on the front lines of a mental health and homelessness epidemic that politicians have no will to combat, and in a working-class community that feels this epidemic as much as the city, and out of the bright lights. But, of course, these are far from “normal” times.
Policy required me to write an incident report about what had happened with my would-be assailant. Amazingly, it was not a loud incident; a coworker having lunch in a nearby break room had no idea what had happened. Neither the man nor I raised our voices much until he started swinging. Then, as I was showing him the door, he kicked over the stand in which we have our hand sanitizer and a sign board that tells people they must wear a mask for our safety and theirs. Outside, when I told him he wouldn’t be welcome back in the library, he told me, “I’ll do what the fuck I want.”
To try to gain some insight into what happened and to write the incident report completely, I watched surveillance camera footage of his visit to the library. The fact that we even have these cameras bothers me a lot, but when I am forced to look at them it really makes me feel icky. What I found when I watched the video was quite striking, however. The man had been wearing a mask for most of his 90-minute visit to the library! He used an express computer (for those without a library card) and he sat and read a magazine, all while wearing a mask. It was only when he ventured into the children’s area for a phone call that he removed his mask. I came upon him sitting at a table speaking relatively loudly into his phone with his mask down on his neck.
Watching the video unfold, I was unsure what to think about what transpired. My agile ducking away from the punches certainly pleased me. But this man clearly didn’t reject the wearing of masks completely. What made him react the way he did when I asked him to wear his mask properly? I am not going to minimize the fact that not wearing a mask could be harmful to the health of the man, me, my coworkers, or any people in the library at that time or afterward. I also won’t excuse his anti-social behavior, but I definitely found myself sympathizing with a person who tried to land a right roundhouse on my face. Twice.
Texting back and forth with my adult son later that evening, I shared that a man at the library had taken two swings at me. “I’m gonna guess something to do with masks,” he wrote back.
“Bingo,” I texted.
I may not wake up expecting to get swung at, but, really, given where we are at with everything, I shouldn’t be terribly surprised.