Who belongs at the library?

The man in the yel­low van

5 minute read
What did it mean when library patrons saw the yellow van? (Photo by dave_7 via Wikimedia Commons.)
What did it mean when library patrons saw the yellow van? (Photo by dave_7 via Wikimedia Commons.)

For as long as I worked at my small suburban library, the man in the yellow van was a regular, and for just as long, library patrons complained about him. Over the years, a steady stream of folks came up to the circulation desk to kvetch about the guy.

Why? Every morning, Sam parked his battered van in our parking lot, then spent the rest of the day between the van and the library. Although we had no idea what he did during the long hours he spent in the van, when in the library, he’d sit down at a table, spread his belongings around him, and read—like any other patron.

“An upscale community”

“Can’t you do something about him?” I was often asked.

“This is a public library,” I’d respond, “and he’s a member of the public. He has as much right to be here as you do.”

“He doesn’t really belong here," they'd protest. “This is an upscale community! That van is an eyesore!"

Sam’s van had definitely seen better days. It was old and battered and needed a paint job. But so did my 2002 Toyota.

“Can’t you do something?” the complainers would ask.

“What would you like us to do?”

“Get rid of him!”

“The library is not in the business of getting rid of our patrons. We only ban patrons from the library for cause, and then reluctantly.”

“There are services available for homeless people,” they'd point out.

“And if he ever asks us to help him find some, we will. In the meantime? The way our patrons choose to live is none of our business.”

Besides, Sam wasn’t homeless. He did have a home. A mobile home.

But that wasn’t the point. Even if he had been homeless, we wouldn’t have kicked him out of the library. Providing a safe space for people who had nowhere else to go was part of how we served our community.

A safe, quiet space

Still, some of our patrons had a very hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that Sam’s need for a safe, quiet place to spend the day was just as important as their need to settle into a comfy chair to read The Inquirer, or borrow the latest bestseller.

“Has he done anything to bother you?” I always asked the complainers. Certain behaviors can and should get you banned from the library. Panhandling. Harassing or threatening people. Even smelling too badly.

“I bring my children here! And last week he was sitting in a van in your parking lot — without a shirt on!

“How is that hurting your children?”

The way I saw it, Sam wasn’t hurting anyone. And as long as he was there, many of the patrons who felt entitled to complain were learning a valuable lesson about the fact that there are things in life they just couldn’t control.

“He’s trespassing!”

“Actually, he’s not.”

The trespasser

Years ago, unbeknownst to staffers, there was a man who climbed up into the library’s dropped ceiling every day before we closed and hid there until we’d all gone home. Then he’d come out and spend the night in the library. The fact that the snacks in the fridge and some of our belongings kept disappearing remained a mystery, until one evening when our director stayed late to catch up on some work.

She thought she was alone in the building. Then she heard a loud crash.

When she went to investigate, she found him sprawled on the floor of the quiet reading room, knocked out. He’d fallen through the ceiling.

Now that’s trespassing.

“A little safer”

Sam, in contrast, always left promptly when the library closed. He obeyed all of our rules. And, unlike some of our more challenging patrons, he didn’t swear or curse or shout or steal things.

And yet the complaints about his very existence were endless.

One week a woman approached me at the circulation desk. “You know that yellow van your parking lot?” she began.

I braced myself for another complaint. But she surprised me.

“I was happy to see Sam’s van in your lot,” she said. “I always wondered where he spent the day. I live around the block. He usually parks the van on our street at night.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Oh no,” she said. “We’re glad he’s there. His parking on the street each night is kind of like a neighborhood watch. He really knows the block, and he pays attention. When I return home alone at night, I always feel a little safer knowing he’s there.”

I wanted to hug her.

Who are we here for?

Living in a van wouldn’t work for most folks, but it worked for Sam. In fact, he seemed a lot happier with his life than the people who grumbled about him. And over time, each complainer got used to the fact that when they visited the library, Sam would be there. His presence became familiar.

It stopped bothering them.

In fact, I would occasionally see someone who had once urged us to get rid of Sam enjoying a conversation with him.

Your local public library is here for everyone, and we value all our patrons. Whether you drive a Tesla or an old Toyota. Whether you're a CEO or a child-care worker. Whether you live in a mansion or in your van. We serve the entire community and we'll do our best to be there for you.

I only wish that the rest of the world could be more like the library.

Image description: A photo of a yellow Volkswagen van in a parking lot. It’s riding on a flat, wheeled trailer hauled by another vehicle.

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