The following was recently published in the Orange County Register (http://www.ocregister.com/ocregister/life/homepage/article_1806319.php). It will appear in a different form in my book Quiet, Please
When the patron told me members of the international community were watching her because she had knowledge of secret documents in the government's possession, and not to be surprised if federal investigators soon questioned me, I knew it was going to be an interesting night.
Working in a public library, I have come across a number of strange things and an even larger number of strange people.
The patron, a plump middle-aged woman with dirty hair but a surprisingly refreshing perfume, came into the library like anyone else. At first glance, one would never suspect her of being who she turned out to be. She spoke coherently and seemed courteous. She had the typical grandmother looks, and was very polite and friendly.
She went to her assigned computer, and I believed that would be it – she'd do whatever it was she needed to do. I was wrong. Five minutes later she came to me and said that something was wrong with the printer. I checked it out and indeed it hadn't printed her job. I apologized and asked her to print it again.
"It's no use," she finally told me. "They're just hacking into the computer – like they always do. They steal everything that I want to print. I don't know why they want this stuff anyway."
I didn't know then who "they'' were, but I assured her that they weren't.
She quickly rebuked me.
"You don't know how they are. They're good. And they're always doing this to me. They're all over the library – look around. Whenever someone wipes their head. That's one of them – they're speaking in code."
It was hot and many people were wiping sweat from their brows. In fact, I believed the woman herself had wiped her head a few times.
She did not speak loudly, but she spoke loud enough that anyone nearby could easily hear the conversation with little effort. The listeners included the men she undoubtedly believed were talking in code.
I persuaded her to print again and stood with her at the print station to make sure she did everything right. As we waited for her document to come on the screen, a pregnant woman soon stood behind us, waiting to print her own document. The older woman turned and became hostile, saying to the pregnant woman, "I know what you're doing. You're suspect. Everyone is suspect."
She then pointed at the pregnant woman: "This woman here has been watching what I've been doing since she got here. And the stomach's not fooling me – they probably hired her just because she's pregnant. But she's still suspect."
The pregnant woman backed away slowly and I did my best to apologize to her with my eyes.
The older woman looked at a small boy, who was wandering around the library with his mother, and said, "They've been training kids for years now. They used to only use them in other countries. But now they're using them in the U.S.; have been for at least two years."
It took us two more tries to get her documents to print. I saw them disappear from my print screen with my own eyes. When, at last, they printed, she switched her focus from hacked computers to the copy machine. She needed to make multiple copies of her document to, in her words, "be safe." She was able to recognize a national conspiracy against her. But she was not able to work the library's very basic copy machine.
She said the copy machine was slow and wanted to know who the library's vendor was. When I told her, she laughed to herself, then said: "I'm not surprised. They are funded by our government. They make copies of everything Xeroxed on their copiers, and forward it to analysis at the NSA. Every time a copy is made, it's stored on a tiny chip inside the copier."
She looked quickly around the library and said in an almost incoherent whisper, "I'll show you where the chip is if you want to see it."
I was curious, but didn't want the woman to think that I was taking her too seriously, so I declined the offer.
She nodded understandingly and said, "It's better you don't know where it is anyway."
She had more theories. The whole idea of religion of Islam was founded by a secret society of world leaders – George Washington and almost every other president had been in the group. So were Napoleon and Hitler. World War II was thought up during a game of poker between Churchill and Hitler. She went on to tell me why she came to the library. "I'd do it at home. But it's too dangerous, so I had to come here."
Her face became sad.
"And I had to leave my dog – my poor dog – in the car. It's their fault that my poor dog is suffering in my hot car. And I can't roll my windows down because they'll take him. They have before."
I thought about that poor dog's suffering as I watched her leave the library, then wait at the bus stop and get on the bus. There was no dog in a car. That settled it; I could be satisfied that the women was simply paranoid and crazy.
Then two young men with army buzzed heads and crisply ironed white T-shirts walked by and quietly said, pointing at the bus, "Let's go."
Everyone was "suspect" to the woman, and I imagined she had left believing I was innocent, but nonetheless would have to give an interview of what she said to me to the secret agents upon her departure.