One of the most vexing parts of librarianship is constantly having to address people whose names you don’t know.

This is true of most customer service and customer service-adjacent fields, and in the English-speaking world this is complicated by the fact that our lackluster honorific system is totally inadequate and hopelessly gender-specific.

As is tragically often the case, the options for men in this realm are more satisfactory than the ones for women. You can really call anyone a gentleman​​—their personal genteelness notwithstanding—without it being offensive, at least not in the same way that “lady” can be twisted into a snide aside without much effort. (Just stick a toothpick between your teeth and try to say “hey, lady” without it sounding like a threat.)

Maybe this is because “gentleman” is hardly ever used as a term of address outside of “ladies and gentlemen,” but the polite masculine vocative (sir) is equally superior to its fenimine counterparts (ma’am, if you feel like making the woman in question feel fifteen years older than she is or miss, if you feel like making her feel like the ingénue heroine of a black-and-white film where the primarily threat to her character is ravishment by an older man).

I love “sir.” I love how it punctuates jokes when I use it with my dad. How it builds a placebic barrier between me and old men who think they know how to do my job better than I do. How its universal application equalizes everyone I talk to. How I can imbue it with enough warmth to make “see you later, sir” into the friendliest of goodbyes and enough authority to be obeyed when I find myself forced to say, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

If I could call everyone “sir” I would, regardless of age or gender or perceived place in our classist societal hierarchy.

But I can’t, and not just because doing so would probably confuse and offend a lot of women. I can’t because language is the most powerful tool in my line of work (and will continue to be until we stop getting our CMSs from the lowest bidder). Welcoming people to a library—making sure they feel comfortable and like they belong there—means being careful what you say to them. I used to think I was pretty good at this, and if I’m being honest with myself, I still do.

Case in point: A couple months ago, a new regular started showing up at the library. They were the kind of person you grow used to seeing in a mid-sized organization like ours—slightly disheveled and stubbled, towing their entire life behind them in a train of bags and bundles—and that you learn to describe to your coworkers in a characteristic or two. Before they’re regular enough that we learn their names, it’s “I had to tell the kid with the dangly earrings not to swear in here again,” “I haven’t seen the woman with the red backpack in a while,” and “you know, he hangs out with the one who kinda looks like Santa Claus.”

This patron’s distinguishing features were that they were long-haired and heavily perfumed, wearing a series of scoop-necked shirts and an oscillation of rainbow-colored polishes on their nails. They were also sullen, argumentative, and seemingly incapable of following the library’s rules.

So I tiptoed through the familiar linguistic traps as we moved through the equally familiar process of dealing with a difficult patron. And I felt good about myself as I made sure to always use they/they pronouns when asking my supervisor if this specific behavior broke enough of the patron code of conduct to warrant being asked to leave for the day. When I tacked phrases like “-presenting” on the internal reports I wrote about their rule violations. Because I knew that even though this person would never read the incident reports that I wrote—the ones where I described their cigarette rolling, their swearing, their falling asleep on the floor—I was doing right by them. I was being a good person. I was being a good ally.

Then it was Sunday, when we’re always short-staffed, five minutes to close, and I’m doing my final walk around the floor. I see them in a back corner study carrel. They’re not supposed to be here and they know it; they were kicked out late last week for rolling a joint in that exact spot and that ban doesn’t lift until Friday. They stand up and teeter towards me, a chemically-induced pitch to their gait. They knock into a bookshelf, stumble past a chair, and I’m afraid. I’m afraid that they’ll fall. Afraid that they’ll hurt themself. Afraid that they’ll hit the ground and not be able to get up and I’ll have to call an ambulance and be stuck at work for an extra hour on a Sunday night for some jerk who shouldn’t even be here.

So I retreat. I put up my shield. I say, “Are you okay, sir?”

It’s a reflex, and I know it’s wrong as soon as I say it. They don’t seem to register it, though. They just blink bloodshot eyes and mumble the obvious lie that they’re alright. I make them look at me. I tell them they can’t come back until Tuesday, that that’s the rules, and I’m sorry. I can’t tell if they’re sober enough to understand, but they make an unsteady zigzag across the lobby and out the door.

It’s the last time they ever come to the library.

One of our social workers later informs me that this person is a she. I learn her name and it’s a woman’s name. I don’t know anything else about her story and until she comes back and decides to tell me, I don’t think I deserve to.

I’m not egotistical enough to believe that my misgendering is the sole reason why she stopped coming to the library, but I also can’t deny that it could be. You have to learn to forgive yourself for stuff like that, I think. But I haven’t quite figured out how.

3 Comments

  1. Katie

    Thanks for this, Annaka and for that piercing final line– I’m also figuring out how to forgive myself, in part by remembering that loving others as oneself does, as the cliché goes, require me to start with… me.

    Reply
  2. Sandy

    I am glad it is not just my generation that feels this way. I don’t always get it right but am trying. Also loved that you got to use the word oscillation.

    Reply
  3. Jack Kamps

    Beautifully and poignantly written. Thanks for sharing this, Annaka.

    Reply

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