The Hard-Boiled Librarian Solves Another Case

April 21, 1994|By STEVE McKINZIE

CARLISLE, PENNSYLVANIA — Carlisle, Pennsylvania. -- My partner and I had been working the late shift out of public services in the library. It had been a rough night. Two CD-ROM stations had gone down and an army of freshman had been clamoring for arcane business statistics for Zimbabwe and Malagasay. Then there was that question about Joseph Conrad's references to Virginia Woolf. Someone wanted to know the annual snowfall of Nepal. Sometimes it seemed there were no easy answers. Even during National Library Week there were more queries than ever.

We fielded the questions, brought the CD-ROM stations back online and logged the ref stats. At 10:34, we turned the desk over to a reference student, grabbed our hats and stepped out into the night. My partner mumbled a parting word. A moment later and he had slipped into the inky blackness.

I looked up at the stars. It was one of those wild and beautiful evenings -- cold and clear with a surprisingly icy April wind ripping through the city. I lighted a cigarette and turned up my collar. My steps echoed in the darkness. A good night, I thought, we had done our job and done it well. Funny that after all these years I still got a kick out of the reference desk.

I found my car and fired the engine. Two blocks over, I pulled in at a convenience store. I tossed my cigarette and stepped inside.

From the back of the store, angry voices erupted. It didn't take long to size up the situation. Two Caucasian males were engaged in a heated exchange near the coffee machine. One stood about six feet and a slender 165 pounds. He sported a tattoo on his left forearm and a scar on his right cheek. The other was shorter, heavier, powerfully built, needed a shave. Both appeared to be in their late twenties. Their argument was close to blows.

''Don't give me any of that,'' shouted the taller one. ''I know what I'm talking about. There is no way that the County of Los Angeles has that large of a population of Ukrainians. We are not talking about Latinos or Serbs, you know. There just ain't that many Ukrainians around L.A. I grew up there.''

I eased myself over to the coffee machine. I poured a cup. After years in the business, I knew it was important to move quickly and cautiously. Timing was everything.

''So you're saying that I am wrong,'' the shorter man growled. He was standing closer now, with his finger in the other man's face. ''That I'm a jerk that don't know what he's talking about, eh?'' He added some expletives. ''You are nothing but a ##X %% % $#### . . .''

''Now, now,'' interrupted the store owner, trying to keep space between the two with ineffectual gestures. ''I run a nice place here. There is no reason to get riled up about this. I don't want no trouble.''

''You stay out of this,'' snapped the taller one.

''A nice little discussion,'' I interrupted, putting down the coffee pot. Then turning to the owner, ''You are having your share of difficulties tonight, aren't you, Joe.''

The two combatants turned around, startled. They hadn't noticed my entrance. The owner smiled, but his eyes wore a worried look. ''Hey, it's good to see you, Mr. Mac. Just a friendly disagreement,'' he replied, offering me a couple of creamers. ''I think everything is gonna to be all right.''

I turned to the two and tried to smile. ''Hello, men,'' I said, ''I couldn't help overhearing your, uhm, discussion.''

The shorter man's eyes narrowed. ''Listen, you,'' he said, ''you keep your face out of other people's business.`

''I'll do that, my friend, I'll do that,'' I said.

tudy the eyes -- always study the eyes. I lowered my voice.

The two eyed me angrily. They had been having a little fun hating each other, and I was busting it up. Try to bring 'em down easy, I told myself. Never let a patron get out of control. Act friendly and study the eyes -- always study the eyes. I lowered my voice.

''I thought that you might like to know that the kind of demographic information that you two are arguing about is all covered in statistical information available in any of the new census CD-ROM products.''

''Man, what are you talking about,'' spoke up the taller, defensive but interested.

''You know,'' I answered, ''computers. Take the U.S. Counties on CD-ROM, for instance. Percentages and numbers of ethnicity, annual incomes, occupations for groups -- it's all there and more.''

''By the way,'' I added. ''You should both know that there are only about 11,300 Ukrainians living in the county of Los Angeles according to the latest census -- not too many when you realize that there are over 152,000 people of Italian ancestry there. Still

that is a significant number. Remember there are only 2,395 Ukrainians living in nearby Orange County.''

The two stood staring. The shorter man shifted uncomfortably.

''There is no reason,'' I went on softly, ''for two friends to come to blows over a question that can be answered easily and quickly at any library.'' I leaned against the counter.

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