By Joey Williams
Being on the third floor of the Main library branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County brings back memories. The memories exist here together as if all of time were crammed in one place. I can even sense the memories that haven’t happened yet. It’s difficult to grapple with sitting here in this place that has experienced so many iterations of me and been the backdrop for so many moments. Some were determined, ambitious moments but there have been many aimless ones too. Here I have been depressed, inspired, hopeful, and occasionally incredibly skeeved out. But no matter how you spin it, this place is one of life, community, and connection.
At nearly this exact desk probably a good seven years ago, I studied for my undergraduate classes. My focus was on international nuclear security and I was feeling especially motivated that morning. It wasn’t long though before a friendly man, dressed in a dapper but slightly too large suit, from the next desk over made contact. Michael was talkative in the way that always seems a bit strange in such a guarded world but I liked him and I liked his energy. I chattered excitedly about nuclear security in a way that probably seemed too talkative for such a guarded world but he didn’t mind. He pulled out a picture of his daughter for me to see, and with the most exquisite confidence told me he believed in me that I would keep the world safe for her. I’m not sure if I really believed I could make the world a safe place for anyone’s daughter but it mattered to me that someone truly believed I could. I’m not a religious person but when Michael invited me to his church, I knew I would go. At his church that summer I swayed and fanned myself as music played, women cried, and men writhed in the aisles in a transcendent communal experience of pure spirituality. I’m still not religious but to this day I look back with amazement and joy on the experience that sprang to life on the third floor of the public library.
“Are you a social worker or something,” a man asked only minutes after my conversation with Michael. I definitely was not (although his guess turned out to be a lot more accurate years down the road than I ever would have imagined). He was bleary-eyed and seemed defeated. I wasn’t a social worker but I have felt as defeated as he looked. I asked him to have a seat at the desk where Michael had just been. He smelled like alcohol, stale and fresh, but I think tears would have welled in his eyes regardless as he spoke about how much he loved his daughter and how much he wanted to be the best he could be for her. I can’t even recall what else we talked about but his distress slowly seeped away. We smiled and laughed and when he asked if it would be okay if he got a hug, I didn’t hesitate. In that third floor library conversation and that hug I’d like to think I passed the encouraging energy from a man who believed I would protect his daughter to a man who just wanted to be better for his own daughter.
Years later I would be in that same room on the third floor on a weekend night after the library had closed for the evening. It was an annual Staff Association party, a fantastic get-together for library employees. I’d worked for the library two years by that point but that particular Staff Association dinner would be my first and last. I had given my notice weeks earlier and the following Monday would be my very last day. It felt cosmic and meaningful to wrap up my tenure at the library with a giant party with free food, alcohol, cupcakes, and music while surrounded by all the amazing friends I’d made while working at the library. I soaked it all in, fully aware of its significance in the moment. I stayed until everyone else had left except my inner circle (comprised of people I’d grown to really love) and one very inspiring unabashedly drunk coworker from another branch. It was the perfect way to close such an important chapter.
As I sit here now six months later, I find myself still struggling to navigate life changes set into motion all those months ago. Some of the people I spent that evening with are still in my life; many are not, a reality that has been especially difficult to navigate. But as I sit here now on the third floor of Main, I feel all the moments that have been and all the moments that have yet to come. And while all the variations of “hey girl, where’s your boyfriend” and “I like the colors in your hair” that I have received here today aren’t quite the sense of community I was looking for, they have been exactly the reminder I needed that life is still happening, people are still connecting, and there’s still a world out here waiting for me to reach out and connect.