Where the Wild Things Aren't

Where the Wild Things Aren't

I am not a very good user of the library. I came once in first year for the comfy red couches, and I stayed because when you bump into people you vaguely know there and engage them in conversations, while they’re busy, they’re not allowed to yell at you – because you’re in a library. The library may be the main source of my thriving social life, but for most people it’s where study happens. I dared myself to spend an entire day in Central Library “working hard” and discovering the ins and outs of the place, along with the Science one, which many Health Science students call “home.”

I arrived at eight in the morning on a Tuesday, and all was quiet. I didn’t know the stairs in there could creak, but when the only other source of noise pollution is the shy, determined scribbling of early-morning nerds, my large and imposing footsteps came in like a wrecking ball. I kept climbing up and up, afraid of the death stares I was getting from the tops of studious faces only just visible over their already-overheated laptops. In my haste to climb away – there were no PE students around to protect me, should I be set upon by an enraged pack – I discovered the very top floor. It’s higher, even, than the little armchair haven people always take the elevator to. The floor is no more than two metres wide, and it juts out of the wall to form a border around the top of the library. Desks, all practicality and no comfort, line the floor. No one here speaks, ever. I tried to press myself against the wall and slide along it, as far from the fragile glass railing (the only thing stopping me from plummeting to my quick and quiet death) as possible. I sat down at a desk, all shaky knees and vertigo. I stared at the ceiling, visualised myself punching some bad guys (I find it soothing), and tried to calm my nerves. I couldn’t. The oxygen up here was too thin for breathing exercises.

I went down a level and into the celebrity squares to get my own little panic room. I placed all my things on the desk and opened my book, but before I could read anything the second floor workstations caught my eye. What in the blazes? Those things are swastikas! It wasn’t a hallucination; there are actually swastikas on the second floor of Central Library. My vertigo came back and I crawled back down the stairs, relieved that no one was around to see me, especially not Nazis.

I kept crawling down until I reached the ground floor, which I kissed with relief, and then muttered a few lines about factory farming so that the four people using the computers would think I was a performance artist and not recovering from a five-minute freak-out. I saw the morning sun gleaming through the wide windows near UniPrint, and I saw the close, solid ground outside lit up by that sun, and I knew where I would sit.

Mid-morning came around, and I was hungry. I had sworn not to leave the building all day, so had packed a Vitago for a snack (it’s like Up&Go, but without the Weet-Bix). I chose Vitago because the worst thing a person can do in a library is eat noisily; I’m talking about you, hipster girl who hangs out on the first floor and is always eating an apple. Frick you, and your apples, too! I really hate you, and also that curly-haired guy who sniffs viciously every ten seconds. You can both go to heck. Anyway, the Vitago was a mistake; things with straws are very noisy – so embarrassed, I sucked down the whole thing in one go.

While I did this, I went for a walk. In the red chairs next to the stairs on the first floor, I saw the most terrifying person I have ever seen; and I’ve seen Richard Dawkins. He was dressed youthfully, but his countenance was that of a monster man fresh from a thousand-year stretch in solitary confinement. His skin was stretched into a gaping, Joker-esque mask, and his laugh lines had become canyons. His mouth never closed, but instead uttered low, staccato laughs; another thing issuing from it was a steady stream of giggle spittle, which sank into the deep, dry cracks of his skin. I watched him for a few minutes, working up the courage to approach him. I engaged him in conversation, and he showed me three YouTube videos and a series of pictures of owls with the faces of cats. This man did not have Internet at home. Everything else was normal, but he was reduced to using only the Uni’s Internet. He, and other shells of people like him, are why the internet has been deemed a basic human right.

I tiptoed away, afraid that if I roused him too much out of his stupor I would inadvertently kill him. I backed into what I have termed the “Red Room.” It’s dark, the only chairs are couches, people have probably had sex here, and the presence of books, while a constant in the library, seems more potent somehow. Everyone was reading, not writing, and they all wore glasses. Were they wearing glasses because reading had worn their eyes out? Or was it because it was too dark to read without them? Had their eyes deteriorated because of the dark, or was it because they’d suffered from too much sun earlier in life? Perhaps they were all here because they must now congregate in the most shadowy parts of the library, where sunbeams won’t be concentrated into their eyes like blinding knives of light.

I curled up on one of the armchairs and half-heartedly did some readings before discovering that the Red Room is where the comics are. Lunchtime hit. I was still not allowed to leave the building, but I let myself go to the Campus Shop. Nothing of adequate size there is dairy-free, so I bought two Nerdaliciouses and some “Frooze Balls,” which sounded exciting at the time but made me hate everything later.

I sat on one of the ground floor chairs and watched people come and go. The law students arrived long after the sun had started heating up the ground, so they came without the overcoats and scarves that I did. They walk mainly in groups of three, and are often bedecked head-to-toe in Karen Walker. The law students are beautiful and proud, and in their prides they climbed to the desk-filled savannahs of the second and third floors, where their golden manes flowed in the breezes generated by the lithe moments of each other’s lean, tanned muscles. No one knows how or why they are so beautiful – but with the only other aesthetically pleasing discipline being Commerce, one can only guess that the key to eternal, ethereal beauty is evil.

I followed them up to the first floor and found my own flock: the Watchers. Mostly Anthropology and Psychology students, they fill the red fields of plush surrounding the stairways and lining the centre of the room. These people are not sure whether they’re arts or science; all they know is that they must observe. They fulfil this sacred duty by searching the groups climbing and descending for leaders, social behaviours, and spiritual expression; by shoving pens into their faces in order to gauge society’s reaction to walruses in the library; and by reading page after page of irrelevant Wikipedia pages about the Stanford Prison Experiment, Elizabeth Báthory, and the Trobriand Islands. Occasionally their observations will devolve into field notes, which they post on their friends’ Facebook walls. They are often arrogant, annoyingly verbose, and loud. They fill up all the comfortable chairs and don’t even do any work. I am one of them, so I fully admit that we clutter up the library, and if we weren’t so afraid of the outdoors we’d be better off giggling on Union Lawn. I joined them for a reinvigorating chat.

It was around 4pm when I cheated; I left the building. There is a stretch of hallway behind the library, and a window that links the two. I was safely inside Camp Nerd when a man waiting at the coffee cart in the corridor began to tap on the glass. I tapped back irritably. He continued to tap, even louder, apparently under the impression I was tapping to demonstrate a shared love of disturbing the peace and not hammering out “shut the frell up.” I had to go to the coffee cart and confront him – I had to. Unfortunately, he had taken his coffee and disappeared by the time I got there, so I had to pretend I was waiting for a friend in one of the many red chairs lining the hallway. It’s important to look like you know what you’re doing at all times, lest people think you’re a fresher.

I took the opportunity to watch people passing through the hallway. The only people in here were staff on breaks and students hiding from predatory ex-friends. There was a lingering man who took it upon himself to educate all who passed him about the facts of life, as he saw them. “The vagina,” he advised the two sniggering men next to him, “is the most dangerous thing known to man. I learned that in intermediate.” Minutes later, he preached his motto, “use me, abuse me, or lose me,” to a small ginger Uni staff member. Perhaps he is a masochist; this would explain how he continues to gain knowledge of the supposedly lethal vagina. In some instances, I concluded, it is wise to stay in the library.

Dinnertime came and went, and all I had was Frooze Balls. The Tupperware salads I’d been so repulsed by earlier in the evening seemed like a banquet in a box compared to my vegan yumyums. “Apricot,” they promised; “healthy,” they threatened; “these were a bad choice,” I said to nobody, because it was 7pm on a Tuesday in Central Library and only suckers were still here. I cried with hunger and boredom onto the balls, and the saltiness I re-absorbed boosted my mood. There is nothing like tasting one’s own tears to provide a motivational dose of self-pity.

Downstairs at the computers, where I’d migrated to, one guy was working his way through a giant pack of Burger Rings and a Choc Bar. He knew how to roll. My laptop is currently in two halves and has a half-blacked out screen due to a very enthusiastic bout of Sonic Sega All-Stars, so I can be found at these computers most afternoons. I’d never been here at night, though, and there was a surprising amount of people hanging around. I did a quick survey, and found that the majority of users were postgrads, exchange students, and hardcore gamers. Many of us past third year have long forgone the custom of bringing a laptop to uni. They’re heavy and breakable, and the library’s computers have much quicker internet. The gamers here had purpose-built home computers that were far from portable, and the exchange students didn’t think we had computers in New Zealand.

Night had fallen, and people were still here. I was reclining woefully on a first floor couch, attempting to remember the outside world and thereby regain my will to live, when I noticed that some of the people around me seemed familiar. They had been here as long as me – nearing twelve hours now. They looked lonely, or sad, and I wondered what they’d been doing here this whole time. I sat down next to one and cracked a bad joke about the library being warmer than my flat, and immediately engaged her attention. She was here, she explained, not because her flat lacked internet but because her flat is so despicable she would prefer to live in the library than return to dark, dank halls where an enraged flatmate could be hiding in every shadowy corner, or where, even on the sunniest day, frostbite floats on the breeze that drifts through her crappy cardboard walls. She was thin from a diet of being embarrassed to eat alone in public, and tired from the early mornings and late nights problem avoidance requires. I told her she was welcome to come and hang out at my place any time, after which she looked at me like I was a bit weird, and I left.

My day in the library was an emotional rollercoaster for both me and those I interacted with. I spent my study breaks bothering American exchange students for answers about their study habits and scribbling madly like a T-rex to hide the sweat stains on my armpits caused by the nerves associated with approaching someone for comment. By the end of the night, I could be seen blindly and haphazardly stumbling through the first floor, overcome with relief and the need for isolation after fulfilling my daily “talking to strangers” quota.

People go to the library to study, but they stay for the habits they form on their breaks. Everyone is happy to be interrupted, and no one will say no to a Nerdalicious. Everyone deals with the library in their own odd ways. There was Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome who wound his way slowly and mysteriously through the first floor aisles; there was the gaggle of paper airplane makers in the second floor study rooms; and there are the slow-mo fight-dancers we’ve all seen on Overheard @ Otago. A whole day in the library proved to be too much for me, but proved it to be a home for more than just Health Science students: this is not just a study room; it’s a social space, a lounge, an internet cafe, and a haven.
This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2014.
Posted 4:50pm Sunday 6th April 2014 by Josie Adams.