Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Library Boys

I was sitting at one of the tables on the second floor of the East London library, writing in my field journal, when three boys, aged around 12, 15 and 17, came in and sat down at the table in front of mine, two facing me and one with his back to me. As in all of downtown, I stand out in this library: other than the librarians and the occasional old man or woman looking at the genealogical books, no one in this library is white. As I sat writing I could feel eyes on me, and when I glanced up I saw the oldest of these boys quickly looking away. I went back to my work, but could hear whispering from the table in front of me. The middle boy, who was sitting with his back to me, turned around, then quickly back to his work when I looked up. More whispering and twittering. I could feel the oldest watching me again. I looked up and this time gave him a little smile, to say, “Why are you looking at me and whispering?” and was rewarded by more whispering and twittering. The middle boy turned around once more for a quick look, then suddenly moved around to join his fellows on the other side of the table. They kept up the glancing-whispering game for a bit, and I had started to successfully block them out when I heard a “Ssst!” and saw the middle boy, clearly the bravest, waving at me.
“Pencil?” He mouthed, pointing to the pen in his hand, which had apparently (conveniently) run out of ink.
I nodded, rummaged through my bag, and pulled out a pen, which he ran around the table to take from me.
“Thank you!”
He flashed me a winning smile and handed the pen to the youngest boy, who was writing in a notebook. They went back to work for a few minutes, and I was just starting to think they’d given up on me when the same, middle boy appeared by my side. His friends were still at the table, waiting with hushed, watchful anticipation.
“Can you tell me where the toilet is? I’m not from here; I haven’t been to this library before.”
I pointed him down the hall and around the corner to where the bathrooms were, and he thanked me and walked out. His friends watched him go, clearly giving each other mental high fives. It was at least ten minutes later, as I was getting back into the swing of my writing, when I started to hear more noises other than pen scratches from their table – first coughs, then “Ssst!”s, accompanied by barely restrained laughter. I finally looked up when I couldn’t ignore them any longer, asking with my eyes what they wanted. The brave middle boy asked, in a low whisper,
“Why are you so quiet?"
That was a funny question for anyone in our situation to ask.
“It’s a library. That’s the point.”
He smiled sheepishly and shrugged, then quickly, before I could look down again, asked,
“Can I sit there?” He was pointing at my table.
I pointed at the seat next to me with a facial question mark, and when he nodded eagerly, shrugged and mouthed “Sure, why not,” then returned my attention to my notebook. A couple whisper-and-laughter-filled minutes later, he was pulling a chair up close to my side.
“What’s your name?”
“Katherine. And you are . . . ?”
He said his name, and those of his friends. I’m horrible with names, and forgot them instantly.
“We’re brothers. He’s the oldest.”
He pointed to his taller brother, who ducked his head shyly with a grin. I waved hello to the two still at their table, and shook the hand of my new friend.
“Nice to meet you.”
“So, Katherine. Where are you from?”
“America. Seattle.” I’ve stopped saying Washington State, it’s more confusing than helpful. I’ve been asked enough times whether I know Obama.
At the mention of America he made a funny kind of a gasp-jump, became really excited, and scooted his chair even closer, stage-whispering “America!” to his brothers. Their jaws dropped comically and they started hurriedly gathering their papers together. A moment later I had three eager boys at my table, leaning in close and staring at me intently. I laughed at their eagerness. The youngest now started to talk to me, trying to suppress a nervous smile.
“Did you always live . . .” He broke off into somewhat hysterical laughter after the example of his oldest brother, who was half falling out of his chair. The middle boy, who I could now see was the only one very fluent in English, shook his head exasperatedly and muttered, “They’re a little crazy.”
“It looks that way.” I said, shaking my head at all of them. The middle boy looked at his brothers and started to grin along with them. The conversation continued in this vein for near an hour, the middle boy, now their spokesperson, talking to me and occasionally translating for his brothers, the littlest starting the occasional question but never managing to finish before breaking into giggles, and the oldest grinning goofily in between fits of falling-over laughter. The speaker, who managed to keep his composure far better than his brothers, told me that he was from Cape Town and was coloured, which, he explained, means he is partly white and partly black. I thought it was interesting that he included that in his introduction of himself. He also told me that he speaks Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and English, a very impressive combination. I told him I just spoke English and some French, so of course they asked me to speak French for them.
« D’accord . . . Des garçons étranges parlent à moi
dans la bibliothèque. Je ne sais pas pourquoi. » Some strange boys are talking to me in the library. I don't know why.
Eventually, after everyone else on the floor had given us exasperated glares, the boys handed me back my pen and headed out. They warned me to be careful on the public transportation, and said they hoped to see me around. I replied in kind, with sincerity: they really did make my day more interesting, though certainly less productive. That’s the fun part about standing out: you can make a lot of random friends where and when you least expect.

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