Something greater at work

It wasn’t much of a job, but I liked it.

After trying to solicit door-to-door donations for a Ralph Nader spin-off and a failed run at writing for a newspaper, I took a job at the graduate library. It was my first semester at college and I reveled in it. I loved the fact that I was a student, even if I didn’t really know what I was studying. And I loved this library.

The first time I saw it, I didn’t understand just how different it was from the libraries back home. It seemed to be missing something. Namely, books. Then someone taught me about the stacks, and that was that. I was sold. I had never seen anything as miraculous. I could wander there for hours, and did, and sometimes I would be so excited to be among so much print that my stomach would turn in knots.

So when I got an opportunity to work in such an amazing place, of course I took it.

It wasn’t much of a job, but I liked it.

My job was to use a typewriter to type out the call numbers onto a sticker and then use a heater to glue them onto a book.

I know what you’re thinking. Dull. Repetitive. Boring. And, I suppose, it was. Except that I got to be one of the people to see what new books were coming to the library. Nerd that I was, that was a thrill. The best find? The “Color Atlas of Dermatology.” I promise you, unless you’ve studied it or looked through that book, you have no idea how many things can go wrong with your skin and how easy it is to end up with a grotesque deformity.

I don’t really remember much else about the job. There were people I worked with, but I couldn’t tell you much about them. It was an odd mix – some of us were students, some not. Some, like me, only showed up a few hours a week. Others did this as a full-time gig. I couldn’t tell you their faces or their names or anything about them.

None of them, except James†.

I could tell you a lot about James. He’s all I really remember about that place, other than the “Color Atlas of Dermatology.” He was older – maybe in his 30s, which to me at 17 qualified as older. He had a distinct voice – a kind of gravel or growl to it, no matter what he was saying. And then there were the things he said.

I suppose I remember him because he made me laugh. Sometimes it was the stories he told about his childhood. Sometimes it was the jokes he made about the books.

Of course, sometimes he wasn’t funny. There were times he said awful, disparaging things about women. It was clear to me that he’d had his heart broken and he was hurting. It made him cynical, which I suspected then and I know now to be a protective covering on a tender heart. To back him up, he’d quote from the philosopher Schopenhauer, who apparently held similar grudges against women. And yet, even then, I’d have to laugh. He was quoting Schopenhauer in everyday conversation to justify his heartache. Who does that?

So that was my job, and I liked it, as dead-end as it was.

And then, I quit. I don’t think I stayed on after Christmas break, though I can’t tell you why that is. Maybe my class schedule got busy. Maybe I got involved with other things. I honestly couldn’t tell you.

And that was the last I saw of James.

My college career took a decidedly downward trajectory from that point on. I found a group of friends that I merged into, and soon they became much more important to me than any class. I was academically promiscuous. I fooled around with classical studies, then cultural anthropology and then creative writing as majors, settling on none of them. My grades were suffering, and my parents wanted to put them out of their misery.

I got involved with a cruel but beautiful man who broke my heart and threw me down stairs. I was stalked by his ex-girlfriend and became depressed from it all. Eventually I moved back home.

Then I rebuilt. First going to the community college and then transferring to a university several states away to start over. I finished college this time. And then on to jobs in Miami, in Ohio, in Arkansas and then back to my home state. I fell in love and got married. I fell out of love and got divorced. I went back to school to learn counseling and get a master’s degree. It had been 20 years since I first entered college, and here I was going back.

And that’s when I started volunteering at the crisis hotline as part of my internship.

Two things about the crisis hotline: We don’t ask anyone who they are, and we don’t tell anyone who we are. Anonymity. That’s the deal. And under that cloak people can talk to us about anything and everything, from things as serious as the grief and fear and anger of someone facing terminal cancer to the triviality of someone bored on a Friday night with no one to chat with.

Some people call only once and we never hear from them again. Others call back occasionally. Some call many times a day.

So I got used to hearing some of the voices as the months went on. And one of them, in particular, I recognized each time he called in.

He had a deep and distinct voice, like there was grit in his throat. He called to talk about many of the same things other people do – loneliness and sorrow and anger. I liked talking to him.

But one night, he called up in a very bad mood. He was furious about something that had happened between him and a woman. He was feeling pretty down on women and let me know that. I didn’t mind, I’d heard similar things before. But this was more than that. He was really hurting.

“I could disappear now and no one who ever knew me would miss me.”

Like I often do when I fear someone was testing out suicide, I told him how I felt about that. “I would miss talking with you.”

“You’re just saying that. It’s what you’re supposed to say,” he insisted.

I told him I meant it, but how do you convince someone you don’t even know that their mere existence matters to you?

“You wouldn’t like me if you knew me,” he insisted.

“I would!”

“You wouldn’t. I don’t like women. It’s just like Schopenhauer said.”

I think I gasped. I tried to tell him to hold on. But it was too late. He’d hung up.

I set the phone down, stunned.

Somehow, some way, despite 20 years of time, despite us living in different cities and despite the cloak of anonymity, we’d found each other again. How did it come to be that I was the one who answered the phone the night he mentioned Schopenhauer? How was it that despite all the other people I’d worked with 20 years ago, he was the only one that stood out in my memory?

But he was gone. Hung up. He might call back again, but maybe not. You just never know.

It turns out, he did. Exactly one week later, when again I was on the phone line. And again, the same line of talk.

I’m lonely.

I’m angry.

I don’t like women.

No one would ever like me.


“I should have never been born,” he said. “I shouldn’t be alive. It’s just a lot of pain and there’s no use, and no one I’ve ever known would miss me if I died. No one I’ve ever met has liked me.”

I had to make a quick decision. I knew, definitely, who he was. He had no idea who I am. We were supposed to be like strangers to each other, but because the world is a place of mystery and coincidence, I just knew him. It wasn’t fair to pretend I didn’t. Even if he didn’t remember me, I had the obligation to let him know we knew each other. So, I disclosed.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.

“I want to ask you something. Did you used to live in Ann Arbor?”

Cautiously, he said he lived there now.

“Did you used to work at the graduate library?”

He started mumbling expletives.

“I know you! I worked with you. And you know what? I do like you.”

He didn’t believe me at first. Who could blame him? I hardly believed it myself. But when I recounted one of the stories from his childhood he’d shared at work, there was no denying it.

And what’s more, he remembered me, too. That girl with the punk-rock haircut.

I wasn’t sure how this revelation would go over. After all, we’d talked several times over the past year about many things, some very serious and others more light-hearted. He’d said things with the understanding he was talking to someone he didn’t know and would never know. I figured there was a good chance there would be an awkward silence and then a hang-up.

It didn’t go down like that.

Instead, he seemed to be truly happy to be speaking with this voice from a distant past, a coworker he’d known for just three months. But in that short space of time, he’d made an impression on me. That much was undeniable. It wasn’t just words when I told him that his existence had mattered to me. I could prove it.

And the exchange did something for me, too.

We all go bumbling through life, meeting and forgetting people without much thought to it. You meet someone, you become friends or you don’t, you stick with them a long time or you never see them again. Certainly many of those chance encounters never amount to much.

But we’re connected in ways great and small to everyone we meet – and probably everyone we never see as well. And every once in a while, you get a chance to make a difference to someone. If you’re lucky, you get to know when this happens.

I was lucky.

I like to think that somehow, I was working the phone line those two nights for a reason. I was put in a place where I could tell him his life mattered to the people around him, and have it be more than just words. I don’t know who or what put me in that place, I just had the deep sense that there was something greater at work.

I haven’t talked to James on the crisis line in ages. That’s OK. We keep in touch other ways, in email and online. We share in each other’s struggles and give encouragement when it’s needed, or just share a joke every now and then.

And each time we do, I am reminded that there may be something greater at work around us, something guiding us to be exactly where we need to be to make our lives a thing of wonder.


† “James” is not my friend’s real name. He gave me permission to share this story.

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