"Knowledge is love and light and vision," Helen Keller wrote in her autobiography, a lofty enough statement to merit a prominent spot on a wall in the computer center at the city's main library. In the "computer commons" on the third floor at the Harold Washington Library Center on a recent Monday afternoon, nearly all the terminals were occupied, their monitors covered with dimmer screens that provide almost complete privacy. You can't see what's on them unless you stand directly behind the user. Patrons are so intensely absorbed that you can stroll past the tables, peer over shoulders, and take a measure of what sort of love, light, and vision people are partaking of publicly.
A MySpace page.
Video of a man's head bobbing up and down on an erect penis.
Hospitality-industry want ads.
Video of a man and a woman, full penetration, extreme close-up.
There are 133 computers on the floor, and about every 12th monitor was displaying some flavor of smut: eatmyblackmeat.com, "results for 'blindfold me,'" laythekat.com, "Contains adult content! Stop!" The ratio was hardly offset by the young man reading the Koran online, or the middle-aged woman taking notes from a Bible site. There were also plenty of gamers, like the thirtysomething fellow playing Pac-Man and the teen a few chairs down absorbed in RuneScape. Except for the woman in the fuzzy pink jacket playing at freeslots.com, all the gamers were male, as were all the porn watchers.
The floor isn't a cesspool of vice where anything goes: two big security guards posted at the entrance to the relatively deserted microfilm room imposed a certain order. They occasionally patrolled the floor in tandem, strolling among the tables and reference stacks. And they were responsive to complaints. At one point a man wearing a wooden crucifix around his neck approached them. They nodded and followed him toward the computers.
A bearded man wearing an AutoZone baseball cap saw them coming and sat up, stricken. When they passed he relaxed and returned to the personal ads on adam4adam.com.
The guards instead flanked a couple of teenagers huddled over a monitor. One had a cell phone to his ear, and after receiving a warning he apologized and put it away. The guards then moved down the row, chatting as they passed a man slouched in his chair studying fuckingfreegalleries.com. They walked by a skinny, hirsute guy at dudesnude.com, then passed a professorial-looking graybeard in a leather jacket with a Dilbert umbrella at his side, taking notes from straightgoesgay.com onto slips of paper. Two people were watching him at the next table, snickering. They had the official site for the Coyote Ugly Saloon on their screen.
Patrons are allowed to reserve a computer for one hour at most, and can only make two reservations a day. By 3 PM AutoZone was at a different terminal but still browsing adam4adam.com. Freeslots was now playing poker at a computer behind Professor Straightgoesgay, who was dozing at his spot. He woke up, googled a few futures-trading sites, then moved on to serbiansex.com.
Among the computers are a few benches and tables where people read the paper, sleep, and socialize in low tones. Four middle-aged guys were hanging out there, talking and laughing louder than they probably should have been. One of them, a bald man in a blue windbreaker, got up and took a walk, checking out the screens. Then he turned to his friends and pointed at the back of AutoZone's head, laughing. He continued down the aisle, alerting his pals every time he came across something naughty. When he got to Professor Straightgoesgay he waved his arms to get his pals' attention, then ran back to their table to encourage them to see for themselves.
"He got it goin' on," he said. "C'mon, man."
"I don't want to see that," one of them said. But the other two got up and spread out, surveying the screens. The security guards soon noticed, buttonholed the men, and told them to cool it. The guys wandered toward the exit and out the door, still giggling.
I asked the guards if the library has a policy against porn on the computers.
"Naw," one said. "This is a public building. As long as it's not child pornography."
Aren't there some people who can't wait to take care of business?
"Oh yeah," said the other. "All the time. They get put outside. They get arrested."
His partner was suddenly alert. "Why, did you see someone?" he asked.
I hadn't, and they were satisfied.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Liz Tamny.