The Fierce Librarian
By Neal Pollack
A young woman entered the microfilm room of the Harold Washington Library. She appeared to be in a hurry. An angry-looking man wearing a gray beret sat behind the desk.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"Um," she said nervously. "I'm looking for the Times. December 21, 1996."
"The New York Times? The Los Angeles Times? The London Times? What Times are you talking about?"
"I assume the New York Times," she said. She showed him the citation.
"No!" he said. "That's the London Times!"
Erik Richmond had been working in the microfilm room a long time, longer than he wanted to admit. He'd heard every possible request, admitting no surprise and permitting no mistake. He took the woman back to the microfilm cabinets, watched as she selected the correct date, escorted her to a reading machine, and spooled the film for her. He did his job gladly.
It was March 15. His last day at work.
"There are a lot of people who come in and they don't know what they're doing," he said. "They don't know where anything is. They think of themselves as an individual person. However, I'm responsible for the whole room, and I have to make sure the entire room is running smoothly. Which means that if there are people who are using copy machines but not making copies, and there are people who want to make copies but can't because there are people who are using copy machines but not making copies, then it's my responsibility to say to those people who are on the copy machines but not making copies to use one of these readers over here if you're not gonna make copies. Then there's the people who come in and think they know how to do it, and they end up screwing everything up. I have to clean up after those people. Somebody puts a tape on the machine the wrong way and suddenly there's microfilm spooled out all over the floor. Somebody's gotta deal with it. That's me."
Richmond's fate was determined in the spring of 1982, when he was a junior in high school. He came downtown one day and went to the library on Michigan Avenue, where his mother worked. Over lunch, he recalls, he said to her: "You know, I wouldn't mind working for the library. It'd be an OK job to have. It'd beat the hell out of digging ditches or working in an office somewhere."
His mother woke him up one morning a few months later, after school had let out for the summer. She told him to put on a nice shirt and tie. He was going downtown to apply for a job at the library.
Richmond got hired in the information center, a job that lasted a year. For the next 15 years, both part-time and full-time, he worked in the newspaper department's microfilm room. Along the way he learned a lot about the history of Chicago newspapers. And he was able to enact certain innovations. The room has a list of newspaper dates that people request frequently, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the first moon landing. Richmond found this list to be incomplete, so he added some of his own milestones, including the day the U.S. entered World War I, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1919 race riots, and the 1977 Loop el crash. "These were just things I thought people should know about," he says.
All the while he plotted his escape. He got his film degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He formed a punk-rock band. He looked around for work elsewhere. He found none. Four years ago he got passed over for a big promotion and realized what he had to do. He enrolled at Rosary College.
"I was like, well, the only way I'm going to get anywhere is if I get my master's degree in library science. The original joke I made was that I was going to get my master's degree so I could spend the rest of my life working in the Chicago Public Library. After about six months of doing it, I realized that actually I was getting my master's degree so I didn't have to spend the rest of my life working in the Chicago Public Library."
Master's degree complete, Richmond was giddy on March 15. He showed lots of people how to use the film machines. A woman came in and asked to see newspapers from December 19, 1969. He said, "You're looking for the day Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered, right?"
"Yes," said the woman. "How'd you know?"
"It's my job to know," he said. "That actual date is December 4."
During the course of the day, Richmond said good-bye to his regular patrons.
"There are some people who come in and they're just assholes. They're just 'gimme this, gimme that.' And there are other people who are very polite. This one guy who's been coming here at least as long as I've been working here, very well dressed guy, he's gotta be in his 60s. Guy wears glasses. Doesn't talk much. He always comes in. Richard Lindberg, the guy who wrote the book about the White Sox and the new stadium--he comes in a lot. There's a guy who's a sportswriter. His name is Walt Wilson. There's a number of people. Street people. This one guy who comes in, always in a suit and tie, very polite and very well-spoken. He had been coming in for a year before I realized it was always the same suit. And always the same tie. I just started noticing that there were holes in the elbows of the suit and it was held together by safety pins."
At 1:30 PM Richmond received a call from his new employer, the Queens Borough Public Library in New York City, to inform him that he'd been assigned to the Sunnyside branch.
"I know next to nothing about that neighborhood," he said as he hung up the phone.
He looked at a New York map. Sunnyside was a short bus ride from Brooklyn, a short train ride from Grand Central Station. It was on the Number 7 line, which could easily get him to Shea Stadium, where he already had tickets to see the Cubs play the Mets in July. He was pleased.
A man came into the room.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"I want to look at newspapers from 25 years ago."
Richmond's eyes brightened.
"Chicago newspapers?" he said hopefully.
"What'd we have back then? Chicago Today still around?"
"Turns out Chicago Today went out of business in 1974," said Richmond, and he recommended the Daily News instead.
After finding the man his film, Richmond returned to the desk and said, "It's hard to believe that in my lifetime there were four newspapers in Chicago."
I was curious about something. "You often seem to appear out of nowhere and say, very loudly, 'Can I help you?' It scares people sometimes. Do you do this on purpose?"
He thought about it for a moment and said: "If you're dealing with the public you have this persona that you adopt. It's professionalism, basically. I don't consider myself a stern taskmaster. When I say, 'Can I help you?' I do want to help. You may not realize it. But really, I can help you."
On the evening of Wednesday, March 17, Richmond sat alone at his usual table in the No Exit Cafe, along the far wall, in front of the stage. He sipped his usual cup of hot tea with milk. A copy of Kafka's Metamorphosis lay next to his usual bowl of vegetarian chili. He was composing his farewell.
"You remember when Mike Schmidt retired from the Philadelphia Phillies?" he said, looking up from his notes. "Remember his speech? He was overcome with emotion. He started talking about how one day in 1973, a 20-year-old kid left Dayton, Ohio, with two bad knees and a dream of becoming a big-league ballplayer. Thank God, he said, the dream came true. That was when he broke down. Well, I'm not the Mike Schmidt of Chicago poetry. I've done this plenty of times. It's just like any other night."
Richmond began attending the Wednesday poetry open mike at No Exit in the summer of 1990. He initially showed up to see his friend Dorian Cryer, but within a few weeks he started performing himself, reading selections from a "self-indulgent" novel in progress that he later shelved. He switched to poems and short stories and his writing began to take off. By the mid-90s, he was considered No Exit's best consistent reader. No matter how bad the rest of the warmed-over journal entries sounded, Richmond would turn in a solid performance, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes chilling, usually funny, and always forceful and entertaining.
"Everyone who goes up after Erik Richmond knows the gap they've gotta fill," says Pete Wolf, who recently started hosting the open mike. "You've gotta be quite on your mark. If you're not, it shows. I remember when I used to come in here in '93 and '94, no one wanted to sign up after Erik. It was like signing up after a tidal wave."
Richmond's stories and poems have never been published, except in an anthology of No Exit material that he coedited. He writes about freaks and misfits from the dark corners of the Chicago landscape, people with names like Davey the Dwarf, Benny the Bus Driver, and Loose-Nut Louie. They are men who work unsavory jobs; they're usually poor and always teetering near insanity. In one typical Richmond piece, on a sunny day in a public park, a man drops to his knees and weeps uncontrollably, remembering a lost love. Another character roams the streets at midnight during a snowstorm, desperately trying to sell an alarm clock to whomever he sees. Then there's the Ju-Ju Man, who recounts the slow process by which he decided not to kill himself, and another guy who refuses to look into mirrors, afraid of what he'll see there. "He mastered the art of not remembering who he was," Richmond writes. "So now he thinks he could be just about anybody. His identity is pasted together out of details from other people's faces that he sees on the street, on television, in crowds. At any given moment, he thinks his face is identical to some other face. Movie stars, bus drivers, whoever catches his attention. Sometimes he looks exactly like you."
Richmond began hanging around No Exit all the time, even when he wasn't reading. He became a kind of neighborhood folk hero. "He's real," says Brian Kozin, who ran No Exit for more than 20 years with his wife, Sue. "He writes out of compulsion. He's not a wannabe. He writes because it's what he has to do. He has these things inside of him, and he's gotta write them down. His characters are really bizarre. These are people right out of a Gahan Wilson cartoon. They're just demented. They're true portraits of some people you'd never think twice about in society. He has a way of raising the lowest losers to a recognizable level of humanity."
"He's a great guy, but he's one of the more frenetic people I know," says Richmond's friend Liam Ford, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "In every social interaction I've had with him, he'll sit down in one place and accost you about some current event he's worried about or some album he likes. Then he'll ask you to watch his bags, and disappear for 15 or 20 minutes while he goes to talk to a new friend he's made or even just to do his laundry."
"He doesn't take ribbing well," Kozin says. "He's extremely sensitive. He's one of the more neurotic people I've known. He's definitely up there. He's unpretentiously loony. It's not like he's trying to be loony. He just is."
Perhaps Richmond's best piece is "The Fifth Dentist," in which he imagines the wretched life of the one out of five dentists who didn't endorse the product. He follows his character's slow descent into madness, his evolution from mere professional pariah to drooling maniac deteriorated to a "state of shuffling decrepitude" who "sets fires in the basements of abandoned buildings." "The Fifth Dentist," he writes, "is tormented by self-doubt and vague feelings of resentment. The Fifth Dentist thinks the other four dentists are suck-ups and sellouts. He sends threatening notes to their offices, and to the offices of the makers of the product. He steals packages of the product from convenience stores and tampers with them in very subtle ways....He stands outside the windows of expensive restaurants, staring hungrily at the diners within, until the maitre d' comes and chases him away."
Last fall Richmond was a guest on Wordslingers, a twice-monthly radio show about the Chicago poetry scene on WLUW, the Loyola University station. He talked to host Michael C. Watson about his characters:
"I could see myself as some guy on the street, like the crazy guy who wears the sandwich board who's always walking around downtown. I talked to this guy once, and he told me the Germans have the power to control the weather. To a certain degree I could put myself in his shoes, which has its good points and its bad points. On the one hand, you can really empathize with people. But there are also times where I'll pick up the paper and I'll read about a terrible thing that happened. I'll be able to imagine myself very clearly in some horrible accident."
Richmond's final open-mike night began at 9 PM and featured various tributes, dedications, and remembrances. A poet named Noam Gaster did a performance-art version of "The Fifth Dentist." Richmond was praised and toasted by people who knew him and by people who didn't. One poet, Joe Roarty, told this anecdote:
"I would go to the No Exit pretty often. A lot of times it was pretty hard to tell whether there was a poetry reading going on. People live in their own little worlds here. A person would be up reading, and amid the general hubbub it was hard to tell. So one time I was at the poetry reading, and I'm sitting there trying to check it out, and all of the sudden I hear, 'Do you mind? Do you mind? There's a poetry reading going on here! And I'm trying to listen to the poetry reading! No! Do you mind? Do you mind? I'm trying to hear!'"
At 9:45, Pete Wolf called Richmond up to the stage, to chants of "Erik! Erik! Erik!" More than 100 people gave him a standing ovation, but Richmond didn't pull a Mike Schmidt. He was a poet of steel.
"As most of you know," Richmond said. "I'm moving to New York."
"Hey!" said a girl in the audience. "I live there!"
"I'll look you up, OK?"
"Anyway, the first poem I'm gonna read is an old poem. I've been playing around with this one for years, trying to get it right. This is a poem about Chicago. And it's about growing up, and it's about leaving home, because Chicago is my home, and I'll always consider myself a Chicagoan, no matter where I go. I'm not going to be a New Yorker. I'm gonna be a Chicagoan living in New York. This is called "Message From the City of Shadows."
He leaned into the microphone and began to read.
Richmond grew up in the 70s and 80s, when the north side was very different from today. The areas that he lived in as a kid with his mother and stepfather--mostly Logan Square and Lakeview--both had a lot of white, working-class ethnics and Latinos. It was a parochial, old-fashioned kind of urban existence, but it was purely Chicago and Richmond loved it. He played stickball behind a candy factory. He got into fistfights. He met a lot of people whom he would later write about, in one way or another.
But he was a musician before he became a writer. He proudly claims a musical heritage through his mother's Italian roots. (His father's family, whom he barely knew, were "stolid German Protestant farmers from Indiana.") He says a great-great-grandfather who was orphaned in the late-19th-century eruption of Mount Etna taught himself to play the harp to pay for his passage to America. A great-uncle was Enrico Caruso's personal harpist. Richmond's grandfather used to take him to the track, and on the way teach him the words to "Yes, We Have No Bananas," as well as to this ditty:
Bill McCluskey, big and husky, was a handsome lad.
But Bill McCluskey, big and husky, stuttered very bad.
From 1986 to 1992, Richmond was the lead guitarist in a punk band called the Plug Uglies. They played at various clubs around town, including Dreamerz, Batteries Not Included, and the Cubby Bear Lounge, rarely for audiences of more than 30 people. For a while Richmond and the bass player lived in an apartment at the intersection of Roscoe, Lincoln, and Paulina. At the time Richmond's old north side still hadn't changed that much.
"There was this weird tribe of people who lived next door to us. It was two guys and this woman, who was the girlfriend of one or both of them. They would have these terrible fights all the time. One of them was this tall, kind of stupid-looking guy who rarely spoke, but when he did spoke really dopily. One of those 'Gee Ralph' kind of guys. His partner was this really short, skinny, wiry guy with a mustache who was just manic. He was the kind of guy who just would never shut up.
"They would all sit out on the front porch steps and drink beer, swear at each other, break bottles over each other's heads, and they thought we were just cool as shit because we were in a band. We were just starting out and we were terrible. We were awful. We couldn't even play the Batman theme song. But they acted like we were the Rolling Stones. 'Rock and roll, man! Fucking rock and roll, dude! Yeah! You guys fuckin' rock!'
"One morning it was like, Jesus, six o'clock, and they were out in the street screaming at each other. I had been sleeping in the front room because there was no heat in my bedroom, and I was like, 'Man, I'm sick of this.' We had a pool cue that somebody had sawed the end off of. Somebody who was on the way to our house had picked it up off the street and brought it over. I still have it, as a matter of fact. I put on my pants and I put on my boots and I picked this thing up and I went out in the street. They're out there in the middle of the fucking street yelling at each other. I was waving this thing around saying, 'Shut up! Shut up you stupid people, I'm trying to sleep! I'll call the fucking cops on you!' It was like they didn't even see me. I was just, 'Hey! Be quiet!' and they're still yelling at each other, totally ignoring me. Finally I put the stick down, and I was like, 'I know this really isn't any of my business,' and the really short guy looked at me and said, 'Thank you,' and went back to yelling at the girl. I was like, fuck it, and I went back inside and went to sleep."
The highlight of the Plug Uglies' career came in 1990, when they opened for Naked Raygun at the Riviera. The proceeds from that concert paid for a seven-inch single, but pretty soon the band ran out of gas. Over the next few years, so did Richmond. A lot of his old friends had left town. His job at the library wasn't going anywhere. He couldn't write music anymore. He saw himself growing into an old, bitter crank if he didn't act quickly.
"If I continued on in Chicago, my life would stay about the same as it is. I should have left town five years ago. Even then, it had gotten to the point where it was too much. It would be the same groove, and it was driving me crazy. I couldn't deal with it. It was just so predictable and so boring that I would have ended up turning into a drone. I would go to work, I would come home, I would sit in front of the TV. I would do the same thing over and over and over again."
He'd once heard Lou Reed say that Chicago and New York were the only two real American cities, and he agreed. He didn't want to live anywhere else in the United States besides New York. To prepare himself, he moved out of his apartment on Lunt Avenue and into the Belair, a residential hotel on Diversey. He enjoyed the change, because he'd always wanted to live in a hotel and because his room didn't have a kitchen, which meant he could eat out every night. Also, living on Diversey confirmed certain suspicions Richmond had about the landscape of his boyhood, now gentrified beyond recognition.
"I'm really bitter," he says. "Other people can go home to where they grew up. But I can't. Because the neighborhood where I grew up is gone."
"Message From the City of Shadows" went like this:
I came from the city of shadows
Skeletal shadows in the noonday sun
Sinuous, lying snake-like across bricks
Lengthening down alleys at five o'clock
Falling silently over the rooftops
Coalescing in stairwells and under viaducts
Assuming a thousand shapes and forms.
The furious, drunken shadows
That raged and cursed in the room down the hall
Stumbling, weeping, smashing furniture
Falling at last
In a stupor on the floor.
The shadows that came creeping softly
In the middle of the night
Slipping from corner to corner
Blooming like black orchids on the bedroom wall.
A child watches them
Crushed beneath the weight of his nightmares
Deafened by the din inside his own head
Lying perfectly still
He watches and waits
And suddenly, in one blood red, fevered moment,
He reaches out, tears away a
Piece of shadow.
Sees it twitch like a broken-winged insect in his hand
Feels it burn there like a hot coal
Sees how the hand becomes a fist
Shoved into a pocket, clenched tight around nothing at all.
And that moment was the end of the beginning
And in that moment, everything changed
And when that moment had passed
You knew it was time to go.
You closed the back door softly behind you
You stood there in the alley
Listening to the sound of the city rushing
Headlong through the night
A million voices there in the dark
They told you to walk
And you walked for miles
Street after street
Block after block
Until you were far away
But that one piece of shadow, still held tight in your hand
It wouldn't lie still.
It cried out.
It mocked you and cursed you.
And it would never, ever let you forget where you came from.
The poem ended. The crowd at No Exit stood and cheered Richmond off the stage. He took his bow and sat down.
Leslie Kozin, the cafe's new owner, brought out a cake decorated with the Statue of Liberty and a fountain pen. It read, "Farewell, Erik. We'll miss you."
"Erik Richmond, ladies and gentlemen!" said Pete Wolf from the stage.
"I'll probably be back for the No Exit Thanksgiving," Richmond said from his usual seat.
"Well," said Wolf, "we'll be glad to see you, man."
Richmond couldn't hold back. His eyes filled with tears. He'd finally pulled his Mike Schmidt.
Later, nursing a Rolling Rock at the Heartland Cafe, Richmond had this to say:
"Man, I got enough attention tonight to last me about six years. One of the things I love about Chicago is that I can walk down the street--any street--and I'll run into somebody I know. But that's also one of the reasons I'm leaving. You know, it gets on your nerves after a while. Everyone either knows me from the library or knows me from No Exit. I even run into people who still remember me from the band. Some people are even rude about it. They can be kind of invasive, like, 'Oh yeah, I know this dude.' I don't have any privacy anymore. One of the reasons I'm going to New York is that nobody's gonna give a shit who I am. I'll get up at a reading and people will say, 'Who the fuck is that? Who cares about that guy?' In a way, I'm glad I'm getting all this attention now. Because next week I'm gonna be nobody."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.