By the Book, With Footnotes
The body-odor calls are the ones Security Officer William Morris dreads most. That’s when he has to tell someone to leave the Los Angeles Central Library because they smell.
He doesn’t mind the rule: He thinks, if anything, the city isn’t strict enough with its homeless. But the library-security veteran also knows how easy it is to humiliate the indigent, and he won’t stand for that either. Bathe, and you can come back, he tells them.
“An ounce of respect,” he insists, “and they will comply.”
Perhaps no one must negotiate the uneasy overlap between skid row and the new Los Angeles more delicately than the security officers who patrol the Central Library in downtown’s gleaming financial district.
Their beat is a cherished local landmark where the segregation present in so much of the city is suspended, and homeless people mingle on equal terms with people from other social classes.
To enter Morris’ world is to explore the depths of society’s ambivalence about the homeless and to understand the compromises involved in balancing their interests against the broader community’s.
A former Air Force police officer and grandson of a Buffalo Soldier, Morris is the personification of order and civility. He wears silver-rimmed glasses and refers to everyone as a lady or gentleman.
Once, when a rookie officer relayed a phone message “from your wife, or, I don’t know, a woman anyway,” Morris cut him off without smiling. “My wife,” he said, looking grave, “is the only woman who would be calling me.”
He begins his day at 3:30 a.m., catching the train from a distant suburb to greet library employees at the door. They nod to him as they enter. “Your highness!” one calls him.
On a recent morning, Morris planted himself at the open door of the Flower Street entrance, where patrons were already gathering, awaiting the 10 a.m. opening. This ritual is a touching peculiarity of the Central Library, a testament to its popularity. Not only do people line up to enter, as they do at Disneyland, but sometimes they also literally count down with anticipation.
On this day, Morris looked out across a crowd that included a college-y young man fiddling with an iPod, a well-dressed man wearing a tie talking on his cellphone, an older man with a leathery workman’s face poring over a Java computer-programming textbook, a young couple with a baby in a stroller, a trio of giggling high school students with study materials, and a boy of about 12 leaning on the handlebars of a bicycle.
There was also a silver-haired woman in dingy sweats with a large duffel bag who was intent on a book about the Rapture and another, slightly unkempt, man lying down and reading William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” A man who paced stiffly and kept puffing his cheeks wore a hospital bracelet.
A tattooed woman with open sores on her arms sipped black coffee from a Styrofoam cup. A large, dusty man wearing a do-rag sat on the edge of a planter nearby and removed tennis shoes that were black with grime. He began rubbing the shoes with a cloth that was also black with grime.
Morris scanned this group. “All these faces are everyday faces,” he said.
As opening time ticked closer, a man with wild black hair appeared. He was wearing a rumpled blue cable-TV repairman’s smock and tottered back and forth in front of Morris, jerking his arms and fixing him with a baleful look. Morris eyed him back. “I’ve had to put him out before,” he murmured.
As Morris watched, the man perched on the edge of the fountain and began rapidly scooping water into his mouth with one hand. Morris frowned but stayed put. “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” he said quietly.
The man is unusual. Most homeless regulars are what might be termed the upper class of street people: those who stay at shelters or otherwise manage to bathe and change sometimes, and who have the presence of mind to abide by library rules.
Phillip Saffell, 55, for example, who sat waiting by the door with a stack of paintings and luggage on wheels, appeared relaxed and relatively healthy despite what he said had been eight years of homelessness. He comes to the library “10 to 6 every day, even holidays,” he said.
At 10 a.m. sharp, Morris stepped aside. Within minutes, library regulars were swamped by the much larger crowd of school tours, families, tourists. The mood was buoyant, festive.
“Can I take pictures of the architecture?” a German-speaking man with a camera asked Morris, sounding breathless.
Trailing the crowd came the man with the blue smock, who immediately left again, and the man in the do-rag, his shoes now on. He had given Morris a friendly smile at the door, but as he walked down the hall he began muttering about police and conspiracies. A library engineer glanced at him as he passed and rolled his eyes. “Mr. Secret Agent Man,” he said, coming up to Morris. “You invite him in?”
Morris watched the man’s back recede down the hall, studying his movements.
“I’m more likely to invite him out,” he said. “My nerves can’t take too much disturbing.”
The Central Library plays host annually to 14 million visitors, but there is very little serious crime. Morris has had to pull out his stick and Mace just once, for a man who tried to force his way into the building early.
Not that security officers don’t encounter potentially tense situations: When Morris told a colleague to make a report on “a lady being stalked,” the colleague looked confused. “Which one?” he asked. “We have three or four ladies being stalked.”
But more typical are the issues Morris faced this day on morning rounds. Checking the bathrooms on each floor, he found one man half-dressed, faucets running.
“There is no washing up in the building,” he said matter-of-factly. “This is not a bus stop.”
The man grunted his assent, and Morris moved on.
He examined graffiti on a wall on another floor and told a trainee to take notes. He noticed scratches on the plexiglass in the elevators and shook his head in disapproval. “I don’t understand human nature,” he said. “Give them something nice, and look what they do.”
He came across a couple of men sleeping in chairs in a corner. One looked almost like a tourist -- his internal-frame backpack on the floor beside him new and neatly packed -- though he comes regularly. Morris approached him first. “You all right? How are you doing?” he asked briskly.
The man stirred. Morris leaned in. “Don’t sleep,” he said quietly.
Morris then moved to the man in the far chair -- a slight, slumped figure. The man opened his eyes, and Morris glanced at the book he had let drop beside him. If you are going to sit, at least have a book in your lap, he told the man, who did not reply, but shifted toward his book.
It looks better, Morris later explained. Keeping up appearances is part of the unwritten code that allows different people to mix comfortably in the library. “Pretend everything is normal” is how one librarian explained it.
Besides banning eating, drinking, sleeping, smoking and bathing, the rules require patrons to observe less definite boundaries, covered broadly by a rule against interfering with use of the library by others. To Morris, the spirit behind these regulations is preservation of “a certain atmosphere” or, simply, “calmness.” They can’t spread things out, speak abusively, smell offensive.
But the rules also mean no excessive intolerance. On this point, Morris is firm. Regulars, he said, “must be treated with the same respect as any tourist.”
The library functions so well not just because indigent users follow the rules, but also because those Morris calls the “well-to-do” rise to the occasion, he said.
“When they come in the building, they know that it’s a city facility and that everyone is welcome,” Morris said. “They are very tolerant. You’d be surprised.”
Morris often talks this way, switching back and forth between the viewpoint of better-off downtown visitors and that of the destitute, as if brokering a contract between them.
“Some patrons will say, ‘Isn’t there any way to keep these homeless out of the building? They are so dirty,’ etc., etc.,” Morris said. In response to such queries, “I try not to be sarcastic,” he said. But he thinks, “I’d rather have them than you.”
Many library staff have similar, complicated views. They complain about regulars -- “a vortex of madness,” one called the situation -- then defend them in the next breath. They are protective of the library atmosphere but even more protective of the principle of access. In fact, whatever the rules are on paper, it’s clear that library security officers essentially enforce what one librarian called “almost a compromise” between staff and the homeless.
Morris said his biggest concern these days is preserving the tradition of genteel security that has grown up within the library system.
Until earlier this year, the security officers were an arm of the Library Department. Now, management is shifting to the city’s General Services Department, not to save money but to consolidate training. Morris says some of the change has been good. But he worries that new officers will see themselves as “police,” a word he thinks conveys the opposite of what library security officers strive to be.
Sensitivity, compassion, respect and calmness are words repeated over and over by the security staff.
“We don’t want to be ... black and white, with no middle ground,” Morris said. “Our job is to de-escalate. If I can get a problem out the door, that’s my goal.”
He is trying to train newcomers in “the old values.”
“Be as polite as possible; we are frontline public relations here,” he tells two trainees who are to accompany him on rounds after opening. They nod at a list of instructions: Look for people eating. Make sure they keep their shoes on. If people are sleeping, don’t bump their chairs. Suggest they get some air.
Morris is able to get compliance from nearly everyone simply by stating the rules in his characteristic, no-nonsense tone. He speaks quietly, but his manner also makes clear that he will not brook argument. He strives, he said, to be impersonal -- to sound like the library talking, not himself.
For the most part, people don’t need to be strongly confronted or lectured. A man wading in the fountain seemed to know he only had a moment; he disappeared before officers could reach him. A woman raising her voice in the computer lab hustled off -- knowing that security was on the way -- as soon as she saw a library worker pick up the phone.
In fact, enforcement of the rules often seems to come down to simple reiteration of a shared understanding between the regulars and the institution. Morris told of one regular who screams at random but has enough presence of mind to inquire, “Was I screaming?” If Morris says yes, she apologizes.
Morris said he knows that different problems exist on the streets outside the library walls. But he admits he sometimes wonders if the same compromise -- framed around what he terms “a few simple rules” -- could work there too.
“I’ve always felt it could be that way,” he said.